I was introduced to Jennifer Miller at the book release party for Emily St. John Mandel’s latest masterpiece, The Lola Quartet. Several people told me how great The Year of the Gadfly is, and then two days later I got a copy from her publicist Summer Smith at HMH (that’s pretty good turnaround). There was a preamble about this author, and a hyperbolic breadcrumb trail for me to follow. How I missed this when it was in ARC form is mystifying. Jennifer Miller has this great little business card that she gives out, on one side it’s the cover image of The Year of the Gadfly and the other is her contact information. I love her self-promotional zeal, very Peggy Olson.
Boarding school novels are certainly well worn – in the past few years, Taylor Antrim’s Headmaster Ritual and Toby Wolff’s Old School to name a few. I was particularly worried about the presence of a ghost, one Edward R. Murrow, as he plays a part in the mind of the main character in this story, one Iris Dupont. She is an up and coming journalist that thinks the days of Sweet Smell of Success can actually still happen. (The Murrow ghost stays on the sidelines, but others arrive to replace it.) I picture Iris at the bar with Burt Lancaster as she tries to convince him to use one of her stories. At the heart of this wonderfully cosmic and flawless novel is a love story, or two and this reporter in training armature is just that, something to hang it all on. What separate’s Gadfly from becoming a run of the mill coming of age in the time of boarding school novel, is the fractured narrative-time-space-continuum story lines that zip forward and back with great ease.
Justin and Jonah are twin brothers that have at least two women circling them. These romances happen in the present day and in their formative years as students at Mariana Academy where this novel takes place. Miller whispers casually about western Massachusetts, and how it is a blue-blood training ground, and where faith and putting on a good face takes a backseat to the drama of real life. This kind of scene-setting reminds me of early an Updike, especially in how Miller presents the socially suffocating members of this elite.
There is a great deal of jumping back and forth, but it really is just to set up Justin falling for Lily, who are both shy little wafer’s begging for something to do, or love. Boy meets girl. Do the math. Back in the present day, Iris is sleeping in Lily’s childhood room, and beginning to uncover something about Lily’s past. Jonah is Iris’ science teacher at Mariana Academy and a former bad boy who has a dark and depressing past.
The opening sections of this book are throat-grabbing as Miller whips us forward and back. Lily and Justin are a windswept corn fed love, and it is blissfully exuberant to watch. They have a great little courtship and at times I wished they would break off and have their own little One Life to Live, which is the romantic in me. As a tired and troubled teacher Jonah pines for an old flame, which allows the story to introduce Hazel and her witchcraft. She isn’t a witch, but she certainly can make things happen. This seems like a perfect rabbit hole for the story to fall in.
Meanwhile, Iris manufacturers her way into the underground school newspaper called The Devils Advocate. A shadowy group called Prisom’s Party basically runs this paper and the school. They subvert and undermine the schools leadership and at times manipulate Jonah both young and old. In the present, Hazel and Jonah are smitten, and she is the devil he knows. Regardless, Hazel had me at hello. She enters the story with a kind of mysterious swagger that left me hoping she’d return in spades, and she does.
Miller juggles so many things, people, places, and story lines that it is dizzying. But fiction on this scale is hard to come by these days, especially a story that entertains as much as it begs you to turn the pages. You will love the smoothness of the prose and the how the science is so easily digestible. The Year of the Gadfly contains a symphony of characters that are both flawed and loveable, as they are unreliable.
I hope your summer reading plans lead you to this book.