Growing up beautiful and damned
The privileged and insular society of an Eastern prep school in the 1980s is unveiled and brought vividly to life in Amber Dermont’s emotionally rich debut novel.
Jason Prosper has been banned from Kensington, his parents’ prep school of choice, and is now beginning his senior year at Bellingham Academy—where students who have been “kicked out of better schools for stealing, or having sex, or smoking weed” end up. As Jason walks out of his Manhattan penthouse in September, he realizes the only person he will miss is his doorman. Jason’s father, who looks “more like a member of the British House of Lords” than a dad, drops him off. It’s clear that he cares less about Jason’s happiness than he does about his possible acceptance to Princeton at year’s end.
Enter the privileged, insular world of an East Coast prep school in this sensitively wrought debut.
Dermont gradually reveals Jason’s devastation and guilt over the suicide junior year of Cal, his best friend and sailing partner at Kensington. At Bellingham he reconnects with sons of his parents’ friends from the past—New England boarding schools being a “small, incestuous world” where everyone knows whose money is oldest, and who vacations in St. Moritz or Tuscany. Though Jason bonds with this predictable mélange of jocks and the sons of investment bankers and fund managers (it’s 1987, and Black Monday looms), he remains as aloof as possible, comparing them to Cal, and hesitant to get close to someone he might lose. He meets Aidan, a girl who’s also carrying troubling baggage to Bellingham, and they forge a special relationship—tentative at first, but gradually deepening as they learn to trust one another with painful secrets from their pasts.
At this point, Dermont injects a third element into her tale of coming-of-age in the land of the wealthy—a mystery surrounding the discovery of a body on the beach after a violent storm. It’s first ruled an accident, then announced by the dean as suicide, but Jason begins putting together the pieces from that night which lead to a far different verdict—one that involves his so-called friends.
Dermont writes beautifully—about the sea and sailing, about her diverse characters and about the youthful pain of love lost.