27 February 2012

Book (P)Review: The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

As much as I dislike the aches and stuffiness associated with having a cold, I love the fact that I get more reading done when I'm sick than when I'm well. Must have something to do with the hours spent lying horizontal on the bed or library loveseat, and if I take a medicinal sip of bourbon every now and again to heal my sore throat, what of it? (Yes, I drink lots of hot tea with honey & lemon, but I swear that they don't feel like they're doing half the good that a shot of whiskey does.)

Anyway, I digress.  Yesterday I started and finished two novels with similar settings, beginning the first one at about 4:45 am when I was too congested to sleep/breathe lying down, and finishing the second one around 10:30 that night. If I'd known just how similar they were, I probably would've separated my reading of them by more than 15 minutes. By the time I came to the end of the second one, I was having a little trouble separating the details from the two books, but that says more about my frame of mind after reading two books back-to-back at my advanced age than it does about the books themselves.

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller captures one of my favorite settings/genres: academia, particularly prep schools. It also happens to be set in western Massachusetts, not far from where I live, so it gets bonus points for that!  Anyway, Iris Dupont is a teenager living in Boston when her best and only friend commits suicide.  A sensitive and curious girl by nature, she deals with the trauma by having conversations with her imaginary friend, the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.  Instead of letting their daughter adjust in her own time, her parents decide to enroll Iris at Mariana Academy, a prestigious prep school two hours west of the city in the Berkshire mountains, so that she can "make a clean break of things."  All this really does is isolate Iris further and drive her to use the mute button for her ongoing conversations with Murrow.

At Mariana, though, not all is as placid as it seems on the surface.  There's corruption in the self-governing student body, the student newspaper is a joke, the headmaster has the local clout to prevent all kinds of incidents from reaching the media, and the members of the mysterious, rabble-rousing secret society called Prisom's Party are the only ones brave enough and dedicated to the truth to do anything about it.

Or are they? There are some voices who whisper that Prisom's Party delivers justice that is heavy on the vigilante, light on the actual justice.

In the meantime, new science teacher Mr. Kaplan is trying to start a revolution on his own by getting his students to think for themselves, question authority, and seek Truth with a capital T, leaving him unpopular with the administration. His extreme, occasionally bullying methods, leave him unpopular with most of the pampered and privileged students as well, since most of them want nothing more than to earn their A for the course and move on to their Ivy League college of choice.

Except Iris, of course, whose determination to uncover the secrets of the Prisom's Party leads her into both the near and distant past of Mariana Academy, and what she finds is troubling. Very troubling indeed. Because more than one student's sanity, or possibly even life, is at stake, and she learns first hand the seduction of power and the shifting shape of truth.

The Year of the Gadfly has the right blend of edginess and day-to-day life to make it an exceedingly quick read.  Fans of the prep school sub-genre, conspiracy theories, Donna Tartt's The Secret History, or Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small will find much to appreciate here.  Its point of view dodges back and forth between past and present, and among two different first-person narratives and two different third-person ones, a style that usually bothers me quite a bit, but Miller carries it off well enough here.  What I liked most about the book, though, is the way it exposes the capacity for brutality that exists within us all. Well, that and a character who is always asking herself, "What would Ed Murrow do?"

Some passages I liked:

"You'd have thought that the Academic League would be more understanding of Iris's quirkiness. They weren't exactly the social creme de la creme. But contrary to popular belief, high school did not run according to a horizontal social hierarchy with the nerds as serfs to the popular despots. The alliances and antagonisms were more complicated than the political dealings of a Third World country. In high school you never knew who was your enemy and who was your friend (154)."

"I felt liberated, free of my previous teenage angst. Though I once believed my superior intelligence would protect me from this Salinger-induced adolescent cliche, it had not. Angst is like the chicken pox -- anyone under the age of twenty-five is susceptible. But as with chicken pox, once you've had your angst, you become more or less immune. How else could high school teachers do their jobs? (187-188)"

This is one of my favorite descriptions of New England mud season. It describes my feelings exactly: "This snow melted into fetid bogs. In those early days of March, you couldn't walk two feet without accruing diarrhetic splatters on the backs of your legs or hearing the sucking, slurping sound of your shoes in the muck (217)."

This book is Miller's first novel and it will pub in May from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  I read an ARC from my sales rep, Holly. It also happens to qualify for book #10 in the New Authors Challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism!


  1. ...is Mr Kaplan Dead Poets Society-like, because he sounds that way.

    That being said (and despite the fact I hate DPS), I kinda want to read this.

  2. What a great sounding novel! Your review does an excellent job of telling just enough of the plot to really get me interested. Like you, I also have a fondness for literature that centers around school life and academia so this one sounds like one I should put on my list right away!

  3. I find my reading varies when I'm sick. Sometimes I can sit down with a big whopper of a read and finish it in a day or two, other times I find I just keep falling asleep thanks to the sick.

    This one sounds intriguing. I think I'm going to have to put it on my "watch for" list.

  4. Enjoyed your review. Am looking forward to getting it in May from the labarra.

  5. I love hot toddies when I'm sick -- yummy! Also, I am over-the-moon at your review here as I'm reviewing this book in May -- soooo excited now!!

  6. I also love stories that take place in an academic setting, so I'm looking forward to this one. Sounds like a great debut novel.

  7. What's the other prep school novel you were reading?

  8. By the way, Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to read my book (despite your cold!) and posting such a thoughtful review. I love the quotes you picked out, too!I would LOVE to come and visit Odyssey this summer, even just to stop by and say hi.


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