The Year of the Gadfly | By Jennifer Miller | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 384 pages, $24.00
“Even Edward R. Murrow sometimes spoke in clichés, which only proves how ubiquitous and insidious they are,” quips Iris Dupont, intrepid teenage reporter, near the beginning of Jennifer Miller’s promising debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly. Iris, a winning and vulnerable teen lost in a fog after a personal tragedy, searches for fresh truth in a new high school. Along the way, she grows beautifully, unpredictably, and against cliché while getting the scoop on an interlocking set of mysteries involving her peers and teachers.
Iris’s personal tragedy is the suicide of her “best and only friend,” Dalia, in her hometown of Boston. Scared of her own grief, Iris turns to her passion, journalism, and makes a new friend: the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. They converse aloud. Though Iris’s parents are emotionally distant, cannot help but overhear Iris speaking aloud to a dead chain-smoker. And so, figuring that a change of scenery might help, they move to Nye, Massachusetts, where Iris enrolls in Mariana Academy, a top-tier private school that prepares students for Ivy League educations by giving them Ivy League-level stress.
Luckily for a young woman caught with the journalism bug, there’s a lot to report at Mariana. The school holds within its walls a semi-contrived but still fun list of dirty secrets that really could only exist in a book about discovering the secrets hidden within a top-tier private school. The most important head on this Secrets Hydra is an anonymous, underground student society, called Prisom’s Party, whose members are determined to enforce the school’s strict and morally obsessive Community Code. Ten years ago, Iris learns (through sleuthing), Prisom’s Party may have precipitated the suicide of a sophomore named Justin Kaplan. It may have even been a murder.
Now, Justin’s twin brother, the intense and rebellious Jonah Kaplan, is back at Mariana to teach science, uncover Prisom’s Party, and, mysteriously, erase the memory of his brother. Iris is a student in Jonah’s science class, where she feels an affinity with his unconventional teaching style. “Murrow was the only other person I’d heard speak about individuality and courage in this way,” thinks Iris, awestruck.
Miller, an occasional CJR contributor, has created a tightly wound universe of overlapping red herrings and ambiguities. Yes, sometimes the plot points and/or emotional stakes feel superfluous and forced—the scene where Justin reveals that he feels alienated because of his mother’s career as an entomologist rings false, because their school is definitely plenty weird enough to accept a parent who studies bugs. And it’s easy to see Jonah’s Dead Poets Society routines and Iris’s incessant Edward R. Murrow jawing as entertaining but slightly sufferable crutches Miller uses to fill character gaps until she can build enough momentum to get to the “good stuff” of the Prisom Party plot.
But while the book can feel breezy and seemingly square, with its chirpy mystery twists and gazillion characters, it also boasts some very real pleasures and a deep, huge heart. Foremost among these pleasures is the character of Iris Dupont. She is about as fully realized as a teenager gets in contemporary literature. She’s plucky, loyal, thoughtful, and, in her own words, “frightened, overconfident, dependent, grief-stricken.” And she’s also frequently hilarious. One great Iris moment: When called to write an immersion piece about the debate team-like Academic League (the assignment is a front; she’s really there to collect information for her own purposes), she bursts into their practice wearing a gray suit, heels, and her hair in a bun, and actually asks, “Can I speak to someone from PR?”
It’s to Miller’s immense credit that Iris does not feel like some carefully concocted example of—to twist a term—“hysterical precociousness” sprinkled with a few moments of epiphanic loss of innocence. Iris walks into every room in this book equally scared and brave. Sometimes she makes terrible, weak, selfish decisions. Sometimes she has moments of peculiar bravery where she doesn’t seem to grow up as much as grow beyond. For instance, late in the novel, when the double-crossings begin, Iris infiltrates Prisom Party to an uncomfortable degree. At her most selfish and peer-pressured, she ends up in bed with the boy of her dreams.
It’s a strange moment, as if the chemicals in Iris’s teenage body have overcome any rational input her brain could give. “Iris, you don’t have to be lonely anymore,” he says. And then she says, “I wasn’t lonely,” and turns away. The crowd cheers; she’s back. That kind of woozy, oscillating characterization helps Iris carry the novel, and become the prism through which other characters must draw their own lines in the sand. Iris recalls two of the most vivid literary young adults, Huckleberry Finn and David Balfour, in her ability to move within the novel and achieve a resonant, honest grace.
As the plot winds down after the climax, it becomes obvious that the dead teenagers—Dalia and Justin—loomed over this novel more so than I’d expected when it began. What first seemed like cheeky quirks for Jonah and Iris reveal themselves to be coping strategies. In so many ways, the twists and turns of life at Mariana allowed them to forget their losses for a few moments. “Grief never goes away,” thinks Iris. “This doesn’t mean you can’t ever be happy again. It just means the space allotted for feeling happy is smaller. Isn’t that right, Murrow? I thought, now more from habit than conversation.”
Miller has given readers a subtle, poignant, and empathetic view of young people caught up in grief, along with an effective mystery novel. And it tore my heartstrings when, in the novel’s final scene, Iris says, “The story that I clutched to myself, more tightly than the book in my hands, was ugly and strange. But it was also marvelous. It was mine.” And you know what else? The words felt fresh.
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