An artistically gifted and somewhat tentative boy, Ethan Whitley is suddenly given the opportunity to study at the prestigious Berkley Academy in Connecticut. Ethan's parents are both accomplished academics and encourage their son to take the offer; this is a perfect opportunity for Ethan to take a break from the burdens of his family, especially from his mother, who is sick with cancer.
Ethan packs his bags with the best of intentions and travels to Connecticut, endeavoring to settle into this new life of dorm rooms and nightly curfews, seeking refuge in the cool calm of the art studios amid the smells of dried paint and eraser shavings. A self-confessed babe in the woods, Ethan is seemingly eager to experience all that life at the Berkley Academy has to offer.
At first he's intimidated by this rarified world of academic exclusivity where people make witty remarks to each other and no one worries too much about money or popularity, or sex. He's shocked, therefore to find himself striking up a friendship with handsome Todd Eldon, a wealthy New Yorker who one night bursts into Ethan's room and asks him to summarize the week's literature reading.
From the start, the friendship flourishes. The pair form a friendly solidarity even as everything that Ethan knows of Todd makes him feel terribly inadequate. Ethan sees his new friend as the type who exists in books or movies, or his imagination, who has everything a teenager wants: "friends, a girlfriend, and as much money has he needs."
Ethan wants what Todd has, not only emotionally but also physically, in the deepest, most visceral part of him. When Todd talks Ethan into traveling into town to score some dope at the local café, Ethan meets beautiful teacher Hannah McClellan, who flatters the boy over his short stories and invites him to come visit her at her cottage situated just down the path from the Academy.
Falling under the spell of this woman whom he barely knows, Ethan spends an afternoon with Hannah,
who makes him lunch then offers him a job cataloguing her vast library of books. Ethan jumps at the offer, quickly seduced by this charming, comfortable world of hers, with the gift card with the word "love" sprawled on it, her delicious blueberry cobbler, and her present to him of a book of Rimbaud's poems.
One night, while drinking hot chocolate by candlelight, Hannah even gives Ethan the key to the outside world in the form of one kiss that means more to him than he ever could have imagined. At the same time, Todd battles with his own feelings for Ethan, finding himself questioning his sexuality and this "strange new fixation on guys." He invites his new friend to spend a weekend in New York with his
mother, Jackie, the trip masking Todd's ever-increasing sexual attraction.
In New York, Jackie and Todd's lives swirl around him as Ethan quietly observes this thrilling new world unfold, full discussions of travel and real estate and parties in exotic locales. But sexually, Ethan only has eyes for Hannah,
lush and angelic and full of mystery. Ethan begins an affair with her, an affair that allows him to feel as though he's sprawling forward in "a great parade of possibilities."
Quickly seduced by two of them, Ethan is thrust into a brave new world of sex and affluence. Hannah seems oblivious to her indiscreet behavior with Ethan; she seems more concerned with looking out for her own best interests and selfish version of love. Failing to heed the warnings of others, Ethan, like Hansel and Gretel in the children's fairytale, becomes enticed by the witch with her good food, warm bed, and the promise of happiness.
Author Tom Dolby beautifully demonstrates the brief illusions and the temporary connections that can exist between people. The core of a person can be so different from what is first imagined, especially when Ethan learns some bizarre rumors about Hannah involving a series of events that happened years ago when she lived in France.
The Sixth Form shows what happens when the young and naïve are thrust into a brave new world of passion and privileged circumstances, where they can act out their innermost desires with impunity. Ethan and Todd's time in the sixth form is certainly one of growth, but this growth ultimately comes at a price. Both are forced to navigate the rocky waters of sex and love, their lives both spinning out of control as they move from the thrillingly new to the full and familiar awareness of maturity.