Tom Dolby’s 2nd novel avoids sophomore slump
"The Trouble Boy," Tom Dolby’s debut novel, was a breakaway hit. Populated with frantic characters and madcap situations, the novel was a mad dash through the ups and downs of New York life before the dot-com crash. "The Sixth Form," Dolby’s follow-up, could hardly be more different.
Taking place at an elite New England prep school, it follows the senior year (i.e., sixth form) travails of two students who become atypical friends, and the teacher who leaves indelible marks upon them both.
Ethan Whitley has just transferred to the Berkley Academy in western Massachusetts, an exclusive prep school known as a training ground for future movers and shakers. A somewhat wide-eyed transplant from California, Ethan is understandably distracted by his mother’s battle with cancer, but soon faces many more distractions from two very different people on campus who will have profound effects upon him.
The son of a best-selling novelist, Todd Eldon comes from a background of privilege and largely unsupervised freedoms. A brash, popular rule breaker, he initially rubs Ethan the wrong way as he urges Ethan to break out of his self-imposed restraints.
"Why does experiencing life have to mean doing something illegal?" Ethan demands.
"It doesn’t," Todd replies. "But sometimes it’s more fun that way."
Beneath the faÃ§ade, Todd is in turmoil. Realizing he’s just going through the motions with his girlfriend, he breaks up with her and begins exploring his true urges — for other men.
A vivacious English teacher at Berkley Academy, Hannah McClellan enlists Ethan to organize her sprawling library room. Also a culinary whiz, she creates amazing desserts and sumptuous meals for her guest, who marvels at how different Hannah is from the campus’ other, tweedier teachers. But once Ethan and Todd begin hearing unsettling rumors about Hannah’s past — and previous dealings with prior students — Ethan begins wondering if it’s such a good idea to be spending so much time with a woman twice his age.
At first, the measured pace of "The Sixth Form" might be off-putting to readers who enjoyed the frantic pace of "The Trouble Boy," but readers who overcome this prejudice will be rewarded with a thoughtful exploration of life for two 17-year-old boys and the almost limitless possibilities that will be available to them — provided that they graduate from Berkley Academy, of course.
There’s something poignant and heart-rending about Ethan and Todd’s experiences, the reader’s knowledge that things won’t turn out the way the boys hope they will. For example, Todd persuades one of Hannah’s friends, a 29-year-old artist named Ben, to show him how guys have sex together.
"He hoped he and Ben could have dinner together, hang out some more during the break. He hoped they could become lovers. He imagined it happening like it did in his mother’s books."
But phone calls go unanswered and Todd ultimately discovers Ben already has a partner.
"It didn’t surprise him. It has all been so casual. It wasn’t supposed to be easy: sex, love. Once again, his life had moved from the thrillingly new to the familiar dullness of disappointment."
Perhaps inevitably, "The Sixth Form" loses some of its momentum as Ethan and Hannah’s relationship takes a more intimate turn despite Ethan’s forebodings. While Dolby does a good job of keeping the reader guessing whether the rumors about Hannah’s past are just malicious gossip or just the surface of the truth, it’s pretty obvious from the start that Ms. McClellan is damaged goods. And while one knows that a "Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction"-style climax isn’t very likely in a novel like this, the confrontation between Ethan and Hannah is rather too restrained, and at times the characters border on being genteel.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 18, 2008.