It’s been 20 years since Donna Tartt took the publishing world by storm with The Secret History. The tale of six college students unhealthily obsessed with the classics and with each other, the novel became a somewhat unlikely best-seller. It also has influenced seemingly every other academic novel that has been written since, perhaps most notably Marisha Pressl’s 2006 Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which replaced the Latin and Greek with science and the small private college with a prep school.
So do we really need The Year of the Gadfly (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a new novel by Jennifer Miller about a possibly villainous secret society at a small New England prep school? Probably not. However, if you’re a fan of the genre, as I must admit I am, having read The Secret History at a rather impressionable time (that is to say, while studying classics at prep school), The Year of the Gadfly is a mostly delightful addition to the canon and a better-than-average summer read.
The novel begins as 14-year-old Iris Dupont leaves tony Beacon Hill in Boston for the tiny fictional town of Nye in Western Massachusetts. From the first page, you know you’ve entered a world of privilege—Iris’ mother is described as an “Ivy League MRS recipient and full-time philanthropy board member”—and that you have a precocious narrator—Iris has researched Nye at the Boston Public Library, and she willingly changes the channel to NPR.
In short order, we learn that Iris has plans to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and that she regularly converses with the spirit of Edward R. Murrow. You will most likely find this detail charming or annoying—I fall into the former camp, so I was quickly sucked into Iris’ world as she joins the school newspaper, only to learn that, for some reason, the staff isn’t reporting on the scandals shaking the student body.
There is, of course, an odd, magnetic teacher, Dr. Jonah Kaplan, a former student of Mariana Academy who has returned home to teach biology to high-school students, turning down a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Massachusetts. Unlike the majority of novels of this type, we actually get chapters from Jonah’s perspective, which provides a nice breath of grown-up sanity, as Iris’ search for the mysterious secret society, Prisom’s [sic] Party, turns creepy and claustrophobic.
The novel also flashes back to 1999 to tell the story of Lily Morgan, an albino who once lived in Iris’ house and once dated Jonah’s brother. Lily is the outcast to end all outcasts at school, and her attempts to fit in lead her into danger.
If this sounds like a lot of plot, well, it’s not even the half of it. Everyone in the book is hiding his or her own dark secrets, and it’s the unravelling of those secrets (as predictable and easy to guess as some of them may be) that make The Year of the Gadfly such fun.
Still, there’s a dark undercurrent to the novel—everyone is grieving the loss of someone close, and the damage Prisom’s Party does is malicious and real. Even Edward R. Murrow is not who he appears to be. There’s a falsity to hero worship and the desire to fit in, Miller seems to be saying, even if the consequence is perpetual solitude.
But the charm of the novel is not the depths it tries (somewhat unsuccessfully) to plumb, it’s the smart and breezy way in which the characters, Iris especially, tell their story. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of that spate of late 1990s teen movies—Can’t Hardly Wait, She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, and the like. There was kind of an innocence to those movies that isn’t present in shows like Gossip Girl or the new version of 90210.
Iris is refreshingly not concerned with pop culture or fashion or sex or even gossip, except the kind that relates to the story she’s covering (although she does use her iPhone quite frequently for research.) Her character may not be totally realistic in this day and age, but it still makes for a welcome change from so much information overload. It’s nice to think that maybe there are kids out there who read weird books and lionize old-school journalists in an era when TMZ rules the breaking news.
Old-fashioned or not, The Year of the Gadfly is an engaging read and a promising debut for Miller. It may be a little too clever for its own good at times, but it’s one of the smarter and engrossing books I’ve read in a while. Take it to the beach and be glad you aren’t still in high school.