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.