Review: The Sixth Form

The Sixth Form by Tom Dolby

Plucked out of boredom and obscurity by wealthy, popular Todd and sexy, free-spirit teacher, Hannah, Ethan is a senior and new student at a prestigous New England boarding school. An intellectual and an artist, Ethan sees in his new life all the glitter and romance that was missing at home with his dying mother in California. But both Todd and Hannah want more from him than he can give, while giving him little of their true selves. Todd, because he’s only beginning to figure it all out himself, but Hannah’s over-reliance on Ethan grows selfish and sinister. Ethan’s journey is more about learning how fundamentally unknowable everyone is than figuring out anything about himself. Which is one of the shortcomings of the book: things happen to Ethan but he never grows or changes. Neither does he get knocked down a peg or two, his artistic pretensions are heralded as amazing by everyone around him.

The language of it was hard to get into and could have used some semicolons (but word on the street recently is that they’re a feminine kind of punctuation and falling out of favor. Well, a comma is a very different thing. Use a period if you must). I was about to put it aside about 50 pages in when I finally got a hang of its rhythms, and when the story got past the first, improbable stages of Ethan’s friendships. Because it’s never really clear what his appeal is. But my biggest problem with the story was that Ethan’s fear over keeping his relationship with Hannah a secret at all costs is never shown to be false: only an affect of her manipulations. Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy did a better job with showing the consequences of teacher/student relationships. Ethan never figures it out. Some of his teachers and administrators know or suspect what’s going on, and they keep it a secret so that he doesn’t get kicked out of school and lose his Yale acceptance. Even if Ethan is 18, that doesn’t seem like the correct response. Especially when the teacher in question is known to be a bit deranged and suspected of having a history of seducing students.

Some of the ambiguity may be because this is a “literary” novel written for adults, but I think it’s also lazy storytelling. It’s a rare, older teenager who would enjoy this book. Maybe Dolby gets a bit of a pass for writing interesting gay characters and I am in the minority of readers looking to heterosexual Ethan for signs of something worthwhile. The Secret History is a better pick for someone attracted to this story for it’s elements of fish-out-of-water in a dangerous and seductive new world, Boy Toy for the pedophile teacher angle, and even Prep, which I wasn’t a huge fan of, for dorky kid bumbling through boarding school awkwardness.


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