Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

My one-sentence review of this book: the delicious fun of a prep school novel and the impeccable punch of a great literary work. 

My love of prep school novels (PSNs) has been well documented (by me). So well documented, in fact, that Jennifer Miller herself found my blog post about this topic, friended me on Goodreads, and suggested that I try her PSN when it came out. The short note she sent me was humble, witty, and charming enough that I actually bought this book, braving the Kindle new release prices instead of picking it up from the library. 

Hey, I figured, what can it hurt? 

Turns out, this is one of my favorite books of the year so far. 

The Year of the Gadfly follows Iris Dupont, a 14-year-old who strives to be a reporter and has imaginary conversations with her mentor, the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. When Iris and her family move to a new town, Iris becomes entangled in a decade-old mystery involving her biology teacher Jonah Kaplan, a girl named Lily (whose former bedroom Iris is now living in), and a secret society at her prep school (because any worthwhile PSN incorporates a secret society).  

Iris is a fascinating character, a relentless hardworking girl who goes after her goals despite the mockery of her peers. But she is not an adult author’s overly precocious unrealistic creation; she is an entirely realistic teenager who is talented and hardworking but does not quite have the maturity and perspective to make sense of what she uncovers. Jonah, her biology teacher, says “That girl had ambition like the young Clark Kent had strength, and like Kent, she didn’t yet know how to harness her power.” (Locations 452–57 in the Kindle edition)

Jonah himself is intriguing, a man who appears to Iris to be a together grownup who has at least some of the answers she is searching for, but who is truly not that far removed from high school himself. As if to underscore this point, Jonah’s first-person narration feels breezy and relaxed—markedly different from the strict, tragic authority figure Iris sees him as—and Iris’ narration is more formal and ponderous. 

Jonah has returned to teach at his own high school to work through his lingering issues, perhaps partially by being the high school teacher he needed when he was a student. He begins his first class by teaching about extremophiles, organisms which thrive in extreme conditions that would kill most life forms. This idea reverberates through the characters’ lives, both practically and thematically, as they are caught up in a swirl of events, hurtling toward a devastating and eminently satisfying climax.  

Life, The Year of the Gadfly suggests, is a series of extreme events that might utterly destroy you. But it is entirely possible to adapt to these conditions and, rather than be destroyed, to thrive.    

Now check out Miller’s amazing book trailer, featuring teen and adult journalists (and Gary Shteyngart) reading the beginning of her novel, and be sure to check out The Year of the Gadfly.

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