This novel, by Jennifer Miller, got a few minor mentions in major media outlets, but I picked it up because it had been placed on the top of the New Books shelves at the local library. It’s a fun little first novel about the high school years, by a woman who also has a journalistic book under her belt, and has master’s degrees in both journalism and fiction writing.
The main story follows Iris Dupont, a high school freshman from Boston and a budding journalist, who’s been moved from Boston by her parents, to a small town just east of the Berkshires, to attend the local exclusive private day school, after they find her having a conversation with Edward R. Murrow in her room (he’s not visible to them, of course, being quite dead). They take this to be a symptom of impending depression after the suicide of her best friend.
The Duponts end up living in the house of a former headmaster of the school, and the rest of the novel revolves around the aptly named Lily Morgan, the headmaster’s daughter and an albino. (One of the few false notes in this very status-conscious novel—think of a condensed, significantly more fun version of Prep—has Lily’s classmates shunning her because of her physical appearance and social awkwardness, instead of sucking up.) Eventually Iris begins to investigate Lily’s life, through the intermediary of her extremely unconventional biology teacher, Jonah Kaplan. Jonah’s twin brother, Justin, was Lily’s boyfriend, and he died under mysterious circumstances. Lily becomes obsessed with Jonah, and equally obsessed with writing a sensational exposé about a secret society called Prisom’s Party,which claims to bully people in the name of justice and truth, and in the name of exposing the hypocrisies of the Community Code, the student honor system.
For the most part the characters, except for Iris and Lily, are types, but most of them are portrayed sympathetically. Iris is maybe a little too cynical and distanced to be the primary narrator and for the reader to accept her thoughts as an authoritative way of understanding the events of the book. The way she automatically judges everybody and everything comes from a place of disconnectedness and isn’t believable in a character who's very nearly an adult (even Harriet the Spy must have grown up a little bit by fourteen). The Kaplan twins, too, as depicted, seem excessively negative. We see only a small proportion of their lives, missing almost all their classes, their family lives, and their hobbies. Just a little of this might have pulled the novel off-track, but it also might have removed the sense that the author her thumb on the scale in favor of characters who really aren't worth it.
The novel is built up journalistically, by accumulating examples. There are multiple instances, for example, of bullying or emotional violence; of secret societies and social cliques; of references to dark works of fiction like 1984 and The Dead Poets Society; of outside events like Columbine and the rise of the Internet (and 9/11, implicitly, given the dates). While the teenaged characters discuss what they think of these and in what ways they’re a comment on adult society, there’s no authorial attempt to tie them together or to think about them. All the scandals could have occurred in a pre-Facebook, pre-Photoshop world, in a private or a public school, among the wealthy or the working class. None of them requires the secret-society, honor-code, popular-kid culture in which the story happens to be set, or for that matter the heavily emphasized contrast between scientific and humanistic manners of thought. This is just the milieu in which the author, knowing it well, has decided to place her young characters. Kids are cruel, she implies, and will find any opportunity that presents itself to exercise their vices. Rumination about larger topics is almost rigorously excluded, presumably on the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Unfortunately, the effect is to make the novel a bit YA-ish, while still too linguistically difficult for the majority of teenagers, who probably need a little more guidance in following the story and figuring out its emotional and moral resonance. It’s not atypical of “genre” novels—science fiction or murder mysteries—but actually there’s no genre called “literary coming of age novel (directed toward non-literary readers).”
There is, however—almost—a genre called “hipster literary Brooklyn twenty-something,” and that’s where The Year of the Gadfly falls. It’s a bit Girls meets The Hour (Jonah Kaplan, the novel’s most important male character, is introduced as looking quite a lot like Ben Whishaw with red hair) meets Foucault’s Pendulum (there’s a bit of Atonement in there, too, I think). The important characters are either high school students or underemployed recent graduates who’ve returned, quite literally in this instance, “to the scene of the crime,” the town where they grew up and the friends they had while living with their parents. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But attempts to figure out the moral and political point of view of the characters—and there must be one, in a novel so fixated on unrespectable behavior, nonconformity, corruption in high places, and even democratic action of a sort—will probably run aground in the same way they might, for any other young writer of that budding proto-genre.
About two-thirds of the way through, I got that sinking feeling when I thought, “Oh no, all the setup has been done, and all that’s left is to chunk methodically through the windup of the plot, step by step, in all its fully articulated detail.” But I was wrong. The end of the book was consistently engrossing.