6.17.2013

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller, 327 pp, RL TEEN



I discovered The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller on a list titled 10 Ways to Relive Adolescence without Angst or Acne compiled by Kirkus Reviews. I am always on the lookout for "adult" books with teen protagonists and was excited to see this list. Of the ten books, two of which I have read The Year of the Gadfly sounded like the least potentially depressing book on the list. Books on the list I have read include Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which was kind of depressing and The Magicians by Lev Grossman which, while a completely remarkable novel worth reading, is also ultimately on the depressing side. If you want to read another fantastic book about a teenager at boarding school after you finish The Year of the Gadfly, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart is much more uplifting despite Frankie's struggles. As I noted in my review of The Magicians, I was especially interested to read this particular book because, besides stellar reviews, it shared so many common elements with the children's and YA fantasy and I was curious to learn what makes a book with teenage characters an "adult" book. I came to the decision that ennui, apathy and depression seem to be overriding themes in these books, especially as the teenage protagonists grow into adults. And, the writing tends to be more complex, detailed and evocative, reflecting more of the inner thoughts of the characters which makes for a more challenging but also rewarding read. Happily, The Year of the Gadfly does not embody, or at least end, on those depressing notes for the protagonist and it does reflect a more complex style of writing, rich with vocabulary and ideas that are not usually found in YA books. I purposely do not reveal major aspects of the plot in this review because this book really is a mystery. This starred review from Kirkus sheds a little bit more light on plot details I have omitted, if you feel like you want to know more.

The Year of the Gadfly (the title has a dual meaning and is very cool) begins in August of 2012 with the first of three narrators, Iris Dupont, being driven to Mariana Academy, a prestigious boarding school hours outside of Boston. The Duponts have"officially' moved from their Beacon Hill home in Boston to move to the small town of Nye because Iris's father is opening a second Berkshires "resort for tourists who liked to experience nature while they had their leg hair singed off with lasers and their eyelashes dyed." However Iris knows that her parents and psychiatrist are worried about her seeming inability to cope with the suicide of her best friend, Dalia, six months earlier. Iris's grief seems to be manifesting itself in the frequent, vociferous conversations she has with Edward R. Murrow, her "spiritual mentor." Iris may be grieving and "arguing emphatically with the wall," but she comes across as anything but mentally unstable, depressed or anxious over the course of the novel. She is no Holden Caufield. And, her talks with Murrow seem to result in good advice most of the time. Iris's dedication to journalism and the fortuitous coincidence that the Duponts will be living in the home of Elliott Morgan, former head of Mariana Academy and father of Lily, former Mariana student who suffered some "awful tragedy as a teenager" that Iris's parents will not discuss with her because of her fragile emotional state are what bring this mystery into the light. Ensconced in Lily's room, which has not changed at all in the ten years since she graduated from high school, Iris is immediately drawn to the one empty shelf in the room, featuring (like a "bookstore staff pick") a book titled, Marvelous Species: Investigating Earth's Mysterious Biology, which is inscribed: To Lily, marvel of my life. Justin.

The second narrator in The Year of the Gadfly is Jonah Kaplan, PhD in microbiology from UCLA. Jonah, who considers the title "Dr." egocentric unless you "can save somebody's life," has been offered a very nice compensation package to leave his research at the University of Massachusetts where he has been examining "insect colonies that have been bamboozled by patterns of climate change," to give the students of Mariana a real education in science. But, it soon becomes clear that Jonah has other reasons for taking the job at Mariana. He is also a graduate of Mariana, a townie and scholarship student. The story unfolds with Iris and Jonah taking turns narrating, alternating with flashbacks to the a time more than ten years ago when Jonah, his twin brother Justin and their best friend Hazel were sophomores at Mariana. Jonah makes a tremendous impression on his already overstressed, overextended, overreaching students focused on ensuring their place at an Ivy League school with his bombastic lecture on the first day of class. He tells the class that "Difference is the essence of extremity!" and that this will be their class slogan, which allows him to immediately start badgering them for being followers. Iris listens to Mr. Kaplan intently, wondering, "What would Ed Murrow do?" She decides, declares to the class, that she wants to be an extremophile. Kaplan asks her, then the whole class, how they are going to achieve this extreme status? He tells them that rousing them from their "collective stupor is going to require an anathematic approach. A test of your courage. A display of your difference." For Iris, Murrow is the only other person she has ever heard speak about individuality and courage in this way.

Lily Morgan, circa 1999, is the third narrator in The Year of the Gadfly and she is the link that ultimately connects and separates Jonah and Iris. Iris and Jonah's paths are destined to cross, for so many reasons that I can't even begin to list them here. To do so would remove the mysteries woven into The Year of the Gadfly. Soon after school starts, Iris finds a copy of THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE ("Carrying the Torch of Prisom's Party Since 1923" New Student Edition) in her locker. The editors of this underground newspaper inform Iris that she is breathing in the "rarefied scent of privilege being taken for granted. Your copy of The Devil's Advocate is blank as a symbol of your own clean slate at Mariana. For the sake of this community (and your personal safety), we implore you: don't give us any muck to rake." A bit of investigating reveals that Prisom's Party, a highly secretive secret student group linked to the founder of Mariana Academy who was deeply interested in creating an educational environment where the ridicule, humiliation, belittling and hierarchy typical in an educational environment would be absent. Supposedly, Prisom's Party is charged with policing the student body (and teachers) and exposing hypocrisy and worse. Iris learns of  that Prisom's Party is responsible for having students expelled, teachers fired and worse, all in the name of justice. As Iris digs deeper into the actions and students behind Prisom's Party, she attracts their attention and is invited to join them (or become their target) if she can uncover vital information regarding Jonah Kaplan and his return to Mariana Academy.

Collective bullying, blindfolds, pig masks, fake names, secret entrances to underground tunnels, sleeping pills, artist colonies, demon symbols, hidden cameras, a clique of mean girls and an overprotected albino are just a few of the elements that make up the stories, past and present, that are revealed as the plot of The Year of the Gadfly unfolds. The adults in the story, namely Jonah Kaplan and his childhood friend and fellow Mariana alum Hazel Greenburg, do, to varying degrees, embody the sadness and dysfunction present in adult novels, but, from start to finish, this story belongs to Iris Dupont. She is a brilliant character I would definitely like to spend more time with. Being an investigative journalist, her story is more about uncovering other people's stories and she almost doesn't even need to have a best friend who committed suicide and an imaginary friend who was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, but it does make her more admirable and endearing. While there was some deep sorrow and borderline mentally ill behavior in The Year of the Gadfly, none of it comes from Iris and she never feels in danger of being pulled under by it. Iris Dupont is indomitable and forward thinking and she even finds a way to turn the tragedy that she discovers and the unbalanced adult(s) behind it into an internship at the Boston Globe (and not the kind where she is "fetching coffee for some prima donna columnist") and the chance to return Marvelous Species: Investigating Earth's Mysterious Biology to its owner, now living in Boston.

I'd like to leave you with a memorable quote from The Year of the Gadfly,  spoken by Jonah:

So I knew Prisom's Party and I understood their tactics. They built an identity based on comparison: stronger than and smarter than. And they weren't alone. Every teenager in every corner of the planet, aside from aybe Iris Dupont, used this approach to combat loneliness and isolation. 

As I said above, The Year of the Gadfly shares similarities with books and movies that have come before, from Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which I read with glee, since it was set at a college very much like the one I had recently graduated from when it came out in 1992, and even the movies Heathers and Dead Poet's Society. I'm sure, to a certain degree, that any book set in an East Coast boarding school is going to have a large foundation of common details and I could go on and on with similar works, but The Year of the Gadfly feels like something more, a cut above. In part, it's due to the fascinating academics that Miller imbues the story with, from bugs to biology to ancient Greek but she also manages to dissect and take an intimate, almost scientific look at the social hierarchy of microscopic world that is high school. Teen readers will relate to this, adult readers will remember it. The academic, literary tone will appeal to adult readers and, hopefully, intrigue teen readers. An amazing, incredible book all around, I highly recommend The Year of the Gadfly.



Source: Review Copy


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