Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea is proof positive that you can cobble together a debut novel about a handsome, rich, brooding teenage hero and his glamorous American boarding school friends - and throw in a suicide, a murder and a hurricane - and still be boring.
The year is 1986, the boarding school is Bellingham Academy on the Massachusetts coast. The narrator is Jason Prosper, scion of old wealth. His penthouse overlooking Central Park is adorned by a John Singer Sargent portrait of his great-great grandmother. He has been expelled from the upmarket Kensington School and consigned to Bellingham in his senior year.
"Most of us who found ourselves in Bellingham had been kicked out of better schools. Rich kids who'd gotten caught, had been given a second chance, only to be caught again and then finally expelled. We weren't bad people, but having failed that initial test of innocence and honour, we no longer felt burdened to be good. In some ways it was a relief to have fallen ... Bellingham offered us sanctuary, minimal regulations and a valuable lesson: breaking rules could lead to more freedom. Because the school catered to thieves and dope fiends, it was understood that additional transgressions would be overlooked. If you could pay, you could stay."
Prosper's ostensible crime at Kensington was breaking the honour code by cheating during an exam. But the real reason for his expulsion was a scandal over which Prosper spends 40 pages coyly brooding over before letting the reader in on the secret: his roommate and best friend Cal, whom he had bonded with over a shared passion for sailing dinghies, had committed suicide.
Sadly, Dermont's impersonation of a male teenager fails in her dainty descriptions of their male beauty: "Cal and I looked alike ... We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us look tough."
The author reveals that Cal and Prosper's friendship had turned physical before their relationship was eventually rumbled by the latter's father. After that, Prosper gives his roommate the silent treatment and later still, Cal takes his own life.
At Bellingham, Prosper's new set of rich friends - Race, Taze, Kriffo, Stuyvie - are, without exception, witless oafs. They are fond of pranks, which would make you assume that at least once in a while one of these teenage rebels would say something funny. Alas, the reader has no such luck.
Race, whose family owns a nearby marina, does at least have the saving grace of being devoted to sailing and after Cal's death, Prosper goes out on the water with Race for a practice run, he at the helm, his companion at the foresail.
Throughout the book, nautical lore - reading winds and waves, celestial navigation, knot-making, the etymologies of "yacht" and "regatta" - are awkwardly sandwiched into the narration, as if to give this pastime some kind of mythical quality.
But the author, who is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, fails to capture the physical thrills and terrors of sailing. Indeed, when Prosper capsizes the dinghy and Race nearly drowns, the whole episode feels flatter than the calmest of seas.
The sole bright point about Bellingham is that four years previously the academy had turned co-ed and Prosper soon encounters the novel's only intriguing character: Aidan.
Her Californian mother had been an "orange grove heiress" and Hollywood insider. In Aidan's room hangs a pair of Fred Astaire's dancing shoes and, we learn, one of her three possible fathers was the actor Robert Mitchum.