The nature of extremity

June 2, 2012

I’m a fan of novels that take place in prep schools — all that privileged air setting the stage for intense friendships and identity struggles unique to school life.  A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Old School by Tobias Wolff and To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield are some of my memorable favorites. Jennifer Miller’s new novel The Year of the Gadfly is a literary mystery that joins this preppy arena with the fictional Mariana Academy in northwestern Massachusetts. The elite school is attended by driven kids of high-powered parents, including Iris Dupont. Iris is new to the private day school. Setting foot on the campus her first day she senses there’s something unusual about the serious biology teacher, Mariana alum Jonah Kaplan.

You can’t help but delight in Iris. She’s an independent thinker with a humorous and authentic adolescent voice. Who can resist a 14-year-old aspiring journalist carrying a briefcase to school and writing rough drafts of her imagined Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech? She also talks to the specter of legendary See It Now broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, as if he’s in the room with her. Behind Iris’s career persona, however, there’s a grieving teenager — her best friend committed suicide. That tragedy, and being caught holding conversation with a dead journalist, is what prompts Iris’s parents to relocate their daughter to Nye, Mass.

The story gains momentum with frightening pranks occurring on Mariana school grounds — a flash mob in the dining hall and burning effigies on the athletic field. Accountable are unidentified renegade students who belong to Prisom’s Party, a secret organization that dates back to the school’s early years. It’s named after Mariana’s 19th century founder Charles Prisom. The Party’s raison d’être is to call the administration on the carpet for failing to follow the school’s community code of Brotherhood, Truth and Equality for All.  Iris sets out to pull the curtain back on Prisom’s Party around the time the headmaster asks Jonah Kaplan to do the same thing. Meanwhile, Jonah employs unorthodox methods to teach his students how to empower their individuality instead of their herd mentality. He focuses on extreme-loving microbes called extremophiles for the curriculum, and Iris begins to think he may be connected to Prisom’s Party. Miller creatively places information about the microorganism throughout the story, as a device to metaphorically define what’s going on.

Both Iris and Jonah narrate in first-person chapters. Another character, Lily Morgan, narrates in the third-person, providing the back story about Jonah’s traumatic sophomore year 12 years ago at Mariana. Lily dated Jonah’s twin brother, the idealistic Justin. She’s an albino and the daughter of Mariana’s headmaster back then. Justin died in a fatal car accident that continues to haunt Jonah. The cause of the accident is yet another mystery, and Lily provides the answer for us.

There’s a lot going on in The Year of the Gadfly, with many interconnections tumbling toward us in the beginning. On the one hand, these interconnections build intrigue and tension. On the other, I found myself struggling to keep tabs on all of them. That said, my bewilderment didn’t arrest the fast-paced intrigue. Once Prisom’s Party reveals itself to Iris, about one-third of the way through the book, thereafter, the narrative steadies, especially with Lily’s chapters. Lily’s chapters, by the way, are frequently the most compelling because of Lily’s unique appearance and also because of the romance, betrayal, jealousy and miscommunication that takes place.

Similar to Lily, Iris experiences romance and betrayal at Mariana, as she persists in her search for truth. She takes chances and succeeds, following her instincts, proving Jonah’s theory about the nature of extremity. Miller brings us to a satisfying conclusion with not only Iris, but also Jonah, coming to terms with identity and grief. She’s written a winning story that’s intelligently imagined, an entertaining prep school mystery enflamed by the hormones and angst that come with the territory of teenaged years. And to the very end, Iris remains a delight.

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