“I was very much an outsider when I was at boarding school,” says author Tom Dolby. “I was almost completely clueless and a little bit naive about the manners of living on the east coast.”
Now a handsome 33-year old, California-native Dolby spent his final three years of high school at Connecticut’s The Hotchkiss School, admittedly an influence for his second novel, The Sixth Form.
The book actually began percolating during Dolby’s tenure at Hotchkiss, albeit in a very different form: “After I graduated, I started working on a boarding school novel with similar characters and similar themes, but it never quite gelled in the way that I wanted. I just didn’t have enough background and training as a writer to really pull it all together.” Throw in a grade A education at Yale University and an impressive debut, The Trouble Boy, and Dolby had the artillery for teenage trials.
The Sixth Form‘s current incarnation took about five and a half years to complete. And it’s well worth the wait. As you may have gathered, the action unfolds at an upper crust prep school: Berkley Academy, where Californian Ethan Whitley decides to spend his senior year. Ill at ease with his new surroundings and inherently awkward, poor Ethan struggles to find social equilibrium until befriended by the popular, athletic Todd Eldon.
Self-assured, seductive witty and rich, Eldon embodies the teenage ideal – he’s masculine. Or Ethan perceives him to be, as Dolby no doubt would have: “My view of masculinity was very much based on the other kids… It was kids like Todd: kids who were very comfortable in their own bodies.” It’s not long until we learn Todd’s just as uncomfortable as Ethan.
The boys’ lives take a dark turn after falling in with a free-spirited – and troubled – teacher, Hannah McClellan. The trio soon embark on a hormone-fueld journey of sexual exploration, betrayal and, ultimately, personal enlightenment. It should come as no surprise to hear that the book’s cover flap describes The Sixth Form as “a sensitive coming of age tale and a compelling work of suspense”. Both clauses happen to be true, but the first can come across as cliche. Says Dolby in his steady, confident tenor, “It’s just a label that publishers like to attach to a certain kind of novel in which there are young people and there’s an arc of starting confused and bewildered about their place in the world and they gain a great sense of where they belong.”