Tag Archives: Amber Dermont

Book Review: The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

                                 The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 384 pages; $24).

Iris Dupont, a budding high school journalist, carries on conversations with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.  As she explains, “…Yes, I knew he’d been dead for forty-seven years, but why should a person limit her interlocutors to the living?”  Odd?  Yes.  Then again, Iris is not your typical young woman.  Quiet, introspective, and highly intelligent, Iris is just one of the quirky characters who drive Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly.

Miller’s title is an apt one.  Socrates’s critics called him the gadfly of Athens: “No matter how hard his opponents tried to swat him away, he kept biting them with difficult questions.”  Like Socrates, Iris is the horsefly in this story.  She asks the hard questions, the queries everyone else wants to sweep under a rug.

Iris has had a difficult year.  Her best friend, Dalia, dies.  The death sends Iris into a depression.  Her family moves so that Iris can attend storied Mariana Academy, whose code is “brotherhood, truth, [and] equality.”  The family rents a house that once was home to the former headmaster of the academy.  Iris sleeps in a room where the headmaster’s daughter once slept.  Her name was Lily.  Iris feels odd living there: “…Maybe we were dopplengangers, since I was a flower (Iris) and she was a flower (Lily).  Of course, Lilies were no competition for Irises…Lilies…reeked of death.  Even in new bloom, their sweetness smelled rotten.”

Foreshadowing is just one of the plot devices in which Miller shows off her skills.  Traveling to the school with her mother, Iris notices that “the mountainous peaks resembled teeth.  The road stretched between them like a black tongue.  And here we were, in our small vehicle, speeding toward that awful mouth.”  One cannot help but wonder if the school will swallow Iris.

To Iris, Mariana “screamed asylum more than school.”  Her journalistic nose senses something sinister within its walls, and her hunch is proven correct.  A powerful secret society called Prisom’s Party rules the school.  Prisom’s Party gets students expelled and even teachers fired.  What would Edward R. Murrow do?  She asks his ghost this question, and he answers her.

Iris decides she will investigate Prisom’s Party as she works on the school newspaper.  Miller makes it difficult for Iris at every turn.  And that is what makes this a good mystery.

Miller adds to the suspense by introducing two other characters and alternating the story among their distinctive points of view.  Jonah Kaplan is Iris’s teacher who once attended Mariana with his twin brother.  Because the story shifts back and forth through time, readers see the teenage Jonah, nerdy and unsure, and Mr. Kaplan, the instructor who instills fear and awe in his students.

Mr. Kaplan’s lessons are not only about biology; they are also about life: “Embracing extremity will bring out the characteristics that make you unique and independent–different from everybody else.”  Miller draws comparisons between adolescents and extremophiles (extreme-loving organisms) by illustrating how very few teens are left unscarred by adolescence.  The teenage years are difficult ones, and few emerge unscathed from those years.  Mr. Kaplan himself still carries the weight of his adolescence.

One of Miller’s biggest themes is bullying.  Prisom’s Party is, in all respects, the biggest bully on Mariana’s campus.  They may as well rule the school.  Miller shows how prevalent bullying is in schools all across the country and how dangerous bullying can be.

In a narrative that consists of flashbacks, Miller illustrates how Lily is bullied.  Lily is albino, and her difference makes her a target.  In contrast to the first-person narratives of Iris and Mr. Kaplan, Miller tells Lily’s story in the third person.  Yet the effect is not one of detachment.  Far from it.  Lily’s account may be the strongest in The Year of the Gadfly, especially when Iris finds a book called Marvelous Species that once belonged to Lily.  The book further intrigues Iris and plunges her deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding Prisom’s Party and Lily’s fate.

I recommend The Year of the Gadfly to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  Miller’s story is intelligent, sharp, and eye-opening.  Miller shines as she describes the pain of adolescence and aptly compares high school to the political dealings of a Third World nation.  “In high school,” Miller warns, “you never knew who was your enemy and who was your friend.”  Keep that warning in mind as you read The Year of the Gadfly.  As in Miller’s novel, our enemies sometimes disguise themselves as our friends.  Iris should be vigilant.

Look at the new paperback cover!

Look at the new paperback cover!

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Finding Your Own Starboard Sea

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $24.99).

            On the surface, Amber Dermont’s debut novel The Starboard Sea may seem superficial.  It is about a teenager from a wealthy family and his boarding school.  What problems could a teen named Jason Prosper have anyway?  Yet Dermont’s plot-driven story has great depth and deeper meaning as she transports readers back to the 1980s and provides us lots of teen angst along the way.  But The Starboard Sea is no John Hughes-type of tale; The Starboard Sea is intelligent, dark, and riveting.

In Jason Prosper’s world, appearances matter.  Why tell the truth when a lie sounds so much better?  It comes as no surprise that Jason has few role models in his life.  Jason, the scion of a wealthy New England family, watches the Iran-Contra hearings with his mother in the summer of 1987.  At seventeen, he has already learned that no one, not even the president, tells the truth.  Everyone has secrets; everyone tells lies—even his parents.  Jason’s mother dons different wigs in an attempt to disguise herself and catch her husband cheating.  She does not believe her husband is faithful.  It is important to point out that the country is on the brink of a stock market crash all because of overvaluing and devaluing the market.  Dermont writes in such a way that deception lurks on every page of this novel.  The reader must understand the deceit that abounds throughout the story before she can then appreciate Jason’s character.  Dermont’s Jason is a product of everything that happens around him.  Because of his elders who constantly drift to and fro with their inconsistencies, Jason is adrift; he is in danger of going under.

In addition to misleading authority figures, Jason’s world also includes “fake cousins” and John Singer Sargent portraits.  Jason and his family are so close with some friends that they have become a kind of quasi-family, even though they are not related.  In his family’s New York City apartment, a Sargent portrait of his great-great-grandmother hangs on the wall.  Not even the portrait is a true conceptualization of his ancestor: “Sargent was notorious for making rich people more attractive than they actually were, and my great-great-grandmother was no exception.”  Sargent airbrushed her into something she was most definitely not–a great beauty.

With all I have mentioned previously, it is quite understandable that this kid, whom his father calls “damaged goods,” carries a lot of baggage.  Most pressing to Jason, though, is the death of his best friend.  It was a suicide, and Jason was first to find the body.  After Cal’s death, Jason enters Bellingham Academy, “island of misfit toys” and place of second chances. 

Bellingham, in itself, is quite intriguing.  The boarding school is located in the town of Bellinghem, Massachusetts.  The founders of the academy think Bellingham simply looks “better on the letterhead.”  Dermont uses this to show yet another example of how Jason is surrounded only by facades.  Very little is real.  Dermont gives us a setting so real and so believable.  She takes her time drawing us into the world she has created.  She sets up the story well.

With all his baggage and heartache, Jason is a very tragic figure.  Cal’s death leaves him reeling.  The two had known each other since they were four and were on the sailing team together.  They won many trophies on the water.  Even at Bellingham, Jason cannot forget Cal.  “Even wet shoes” remind him of his deceased friend.  Jason tries out for the school’s sailing team, but a mishap occurs.  Jason saves the youth but decides to forego sailing without Cal.

At Bellingham, he feels lonely but soon meets someone to fill the void in his life.  He is drawn to a curious and beautiful girl at Bellingham named Aidan.   She owns shoes that she claims were owned by Fred Astaire.  Aidan is a murky figure.  Some things that she says seem less than truthful.  In my opinion, Aidan is Dermont’s most intriguing character.  Aidan’s father may or may not be Robert Mitchum.  Her mother, Aidan swears, is the inspiration for the Eagles’ song Hotel California.

Not surprisingly, Jason falls in love with Aidan.  Soon, all he thinks about are Cal and Aidan, Aidan and Cal.  Dermont, though, brings in a game-changer.  In a nod to the man versus nature conflict, Dermont orchestrates the landfall of a major hurricane on the town of Bellinghem.  The storm devastates both the town and the academy, leaving Jason to contend with yet another loss.

Since accidents and deaths follow Jason, he often thinks of Jessica McClure.  McClure was the toddler who, at eighteen months of age, fell into a well in the backyard of her Midland, Texas, home on October 14, 1987.  After 58 hours, she was saved.  Baby Jessica was saved.  Dermont adds this element to the story to underscore how lost Jason feels.  Jason cannot help but wonder who will save him.  He feels he is drowning but sees no life raft.  Where is his rescue crew to pull him from his abyss?

Because Jason loves the water, Dermont uses ocean motifs throughout her tale.  She is especially fond of sailing metaphors.  This, surprisingly, never grows tiresome and strengthens the narrative.  Her passages are visually stunning.  I want to share some of my favorites.  When Jason sees Bellingham for the first time: “The entire school appeared to float on water, like a life raft.  I felt weightless.  The rhythm of the waves reminded me of naval hymns, of songs about peril and rescue.”  To describe himself after Cal’s death, Jason reveals, “Since Cal’s death, I’d developed a nasty habit of capsizing.”  To describe the hurricane’s devastation, Dermont writes: “Poseidon had struck his trident, summoning his flood, turning Bellingham into a temporary Atlantis.”

Even the novel’s title is a nod to Dermont’s sailing metaphors.  The “starboard sea” means “the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life.”  In writing this novel, Dermont has truly discovered her own starboard sea.  I hope she does not stray from this, her right path, her own starboard sea.

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