THE YEAR OF THE GADFLY, the astounding debut novel by Jennifer Miller, is a perfect lesson in multi-layered story telling. We’re pleased to provide a review of it here, as at least two members of Team Literary Man have now read it, including the Verbal Vixen, who stayed up till three am in order to finish it in one wild, manic sitting. This is something like the best feeling ever: dying to know what happens, while praying the book won’t end. Well, that’s how we felt.
The marketing blurb calls GADFLY “an exhilarating debut novel about adolescence in the rarified world of New England prep schools. Secret societies and stained pasts fill every page of this unique debut with potential tragedy and teen intrigue.” Turns out all that’s true. The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Rumpus, and many other publications have also cited the book’s many merits, although what’s stuck with us most, now that two full weeks have transpired since finishing the book, is how compulsively one reads the text, as if each little informational plot nugget just whets your addictive appetite for the next. It’s done masterfully, impressively, so that fifty pages in, you’re aware that something perverse and terrible happened that night ten years ago, but you can’t possibly guess what it was, and yet it’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t keep reading to find out what happened.
Some loose information points about the meat of the story:
- Fourteen year old Iris Dupont narrates (in the first person) roughly 1/3 of the book’s chapters. Iris has a fascinating, psychotic relationship with the “ghost” of Edward Murrow, who acts as a voice in her head with whom she mulls over various decisions in her life (it’s very funny and, of course, disturbing). Iris isn’t overtly likeable, but she’s recognizable, human, flawed in such a way that endears you to her: she’s the nerdy girl in high school who you’d have a crush on if she’d only take off her glasses, stop caring so much about her grades, and get into a little trouble every now and then (metaphorically speaking).
- Jonah Kaplan, a young, tortured biology teacher (and alumnus of the Mariana Academy) also narrates about a third of the book. Jonah’s character provides the fulcrum of the novel, as the stories of Iris and Lily (the third narrator) see-saw back and forth between the Jonah of the past (Mariana Academy in the late 1990s) and the present (2012). The thing with Jonah is this: he used to have a twin brother. But why won’t Jonah talk about his brother? Why does he even refuse to admit that he ever had a twin? We know there was a car wreck, and we know it happened right in front of Lily’s house, but why were there no skidmarks? Why was there never a full police investigation?
There has been talk about whether this book should be considered Young Adult fiction, or whether it’s literary fiction. It’s time for people to stop cramming good books into artificial genre categories. Fiction is fiction. Literature is literature. The subject matter of GADFLY is serious enough: sexual obsession, artistic obsession, mutilation, extortion, high school social stratification. So it’s possible that the novel’s tone and pace — both very quick and accessible — remind readers of books like A SEPARATE PEACE or THE SECRET HISTORY. The only technical distinction here, between YA and lit fiction, is that Miller doesn’t over-emphasize the differences in the characters’ voices, meaning, all three perspectives sound roughly familiar, which, perhaps, saves the reader any difficult in jumping between perspectives, but which critics have suggested is a shortcoming of the novel. In any case, the novel can — and should — be read by teen readers (at least, those mature enough for the subject matter) and adult readers, too.
It’s strange how engrossing the text is, how much it seduces you into turning the next page, again and again, stripping off the layers of plot until you arrive at the novel’s totally satisfying climax. I hadn’t intended to describe the book in such sexual terms, but the perceptible tensions of the text — old lovers, jealousies between brothers and their girlfriends, the inevitable teacher / student tension — permeate the novel’s pages.
There is an extended metaphor about the effect of sub-oceanic pressure on microscopic life forms. The school’s called the Mariana Academy, and within the school there’s a section called “The Trench,” where social outcasts congregate. The Kaplan Brothers, also, live in a home full of insects, as their parents are entomologists. Creepy, successfully scaffolding on their characters, and clear enough to the average reader without any knowledge of bugs and the like.
What else? Of course, this is a prep school novel. And you prep school novel junkies out there, you know who you are. This is also a novel about ambition: anyone who’s ever had ambition, or loved someone who had ambition, will feel the pain in this book, as well as the satisfaction of achieving your ambition.
So, friends, if you’ve already read GADFLY, let us know what you think! If you haven’t read it yet, buy it somewhere good like Powell’s.
Review by @stremainenelson