Jennifer Miller's Daring The Year of the Gadfly

Eric D. Goodman

Part coming-of-age story, part secret society mystery, Year of the Gadfly follows the exploits of Iris Dupont, a teenage reporter whose family is moving from their home in Boston to the remote New England town of Nye.  Moving to a new place can be difficult for any 14-year old child. Add to that Iris’s personality as a “gadfly,” someone who does not quite fit in, and Miller offers us an intriguing protagonist. Her best friend, for example, is the imaginary ghost of Edward R. Murrow.

The reader can get a favor for the somber and sarcastic mood from the opening lines.

“The days were already growing shorter, prodding us toward summer’s end, when my mother and I left Boston for the sequestered town of Nye. She hummed to the radio and I sat strapped into the passenger seat, like a convict being shuttled between prisons.”

The official reason given for their move is that her father, a “savy businessman, befuddled parent,” is opening a resort. But Iris relates the real reason for their move: after a traumatic experience, and after being caught talking to walls (or, rather, the ghosts of dead journalists), her psychologist suggested Iris needed to get away for an opportunity to recover and start over. “So off we went to my very own Magic Mountain,” Iris quips.

If anything, the change in location only seems to further isolate Iris, who does not reach out to other students when she begins her new school, but continues to confer in lengthy conversations with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.

One exception: Iris does take a liking to her new biology teacher, Jonah Kaplan, who is a failed microbiologist  haunted by the ghosts of his own past. (A past we get to see first-hand when the book shifts to his point of view in another decade.) Iris and Mr. Kaplan each embarks on a private investigation to uncover a secret society in their remote New England town. As Iris and Jonah's paths intersect, they are drawn into the darker corners of their town, their school, and their own minds

 The Year of the Gadfly is Jennifer Miller’s debut novel.  She is the author of a non-fiction book, Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East. For her fiction debut, she has taken some big risks in The Year of the Gadfly. Her bravery pays off in the form of a compelling novel. Iris might chide me for saying something so cliché, but this is a fast-paced page turner.

What I found most intriguing (and daring for a first-time novelist) was the structure of the book and the points of view employed by the author.  We get chapters from both Iris and Kaplan’s perspectives, as well as other characters, such as Lilly, the mysterious girl who used to live in the house (and bedroom) that Iris now occupies.  Then, Miller jumps from one decade to another, seeing things from the perspectives of Jonah Kaplan the student and Jonah Kaplan the teacher.  I am fascinated, in general, by stories and books that offer multiple perspectives, but Miller’s technique of going back and forth between characters (there are others who exist in both eras) both in 2012 and 2000—essentially seeing one person as two different characters—was exciting.

And then there are the great lines that fill the book, like when Iris describes her new school by saying, “The place screamed asylum more than school.” Or when Iris recalls, “Mr. Kaplan told us that with all the dead skin cells and falling leaves, the world is dying as much as it’s living, even though we only like to consider the living parts.”  Or when the older Jonah Kaplan muses that “Most good things in life come pre-packaged with nostalgia; otherwise nobody would appreciate anything.”

In one memorable passage, the older Jonah Kaplan, a scientist at heart, considers the irony of his teaching at a prep school.

“In a way, the idea of prep school flouts evolution itself. From single-cell organisms to human beings, each stage of life is an active and living moment. Nature in a state of preparation makes no sense.

“Of course, in some distant future, the high-powered prep school will become obsolete. Centuries from now, students will spend their days in isolated pods having lessons transmitted into their brains via satellite. Until that time, kids will have to learn how to survive in the teeming culture that is a high school. We all desire immunity, the ability to deflect pain the way some microorganisms do.”

The characters in Gadfly aren’t exactly cheery, but despite their flaws, they are likable and it is easy to care about what happens to them. Jennifer Miller offers an interesting cast, multiple perspectives, mystery, a compelling story, and does it all in a witty, easy-on-the-eye prose style. The Year of the Gadfly is a book to read, and Jennifer Miller is a writer to watch. 

The Year of the Gadfly
By Jennifer Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 8, 2011)
ISBN-10: 0547548591; ISBN-13:978-0547548593



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