I’m a sucker for books about prep schools, maybe because I never went to one, or perhaps because due to a teenage obsession with “The Catcher in the Rye.” Salinger’s magnum opus is, of course, the novel by which all emotionally volatile teenagers (by which I mean all teenagers) are compared. I’m particularly fond of of Marisha Pessl’s excellent “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” from 2007, in which newcomer Blue van Meer integrates with the precocious Bluebloods. Older books like Robert Cormier’s 1974 “The Chocolate War” and John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” from 1959 make strong impressions on teenage readers, even if they’re slightly outdated today. Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2005 “Prep” may be dreary, but it exemplifies the standard plot device of the prep school novel: Outsider joins elite institution, attempts integration, exposes inherent inequalities/dangerous secret societies/cholate-based economies therein, risks becoming an outsider again, retains integrity.
Jennifer Miller joins the illustrious history of prep-school novels with her debut, “The Year of the Gadfly.” It’s told from the perspective of three people—Lily, Iris and Jonah. They all attended the same New England prep school, Mariana Academy. Jonah and Lily graduated in 2002 and Iris is attending in present day 2012. Iris and her family are living in the home of the former headmaster of Mariana Academy; she occupies Lily’s former bedroom. Both Iris and Lily become embroiled in the school’s secret society, Prisom’s Party. Iris is intent on uncovering the sordid history of the society in a tell-all article for her school paper, or better yet, the New York Times. As she gets closer and closer, it’s not clear if she’ll abandon her journalistic ambition for a place on the inside—Lily was also willing to risk much to be a part of the Studio Girls, a group of mean artistic girls with a preternatural understanding of Foucault.
Unfortunately, Miller’s plotting and characters feel forced, as if she’s trying too hard to match that aforementioned formula while appealing to both younger and older readers. To truly make Lily an outsider, she’s albino. Cue sad scenes of children frolicking in the sunshine while poor Lily sits in the shade all alone. Miller only begins to explore an interesting theme of how their peers and teachers try to place these girls into their expected roles—Lily as innocent, and Iris as lonely, complacent, depressive.
Jonah bridges Lily and Iris’ stories as Lily’s classmate and Iris’ teacher. During the intermediary years he tried to escape the horrors of his own high-school years, gained a PhD and returned to Mariana Academy with his tail between his legs. Jonah might appeal to teenagers, to whom a person older by ten years is perceived to have amassed wisdom from the ages. With his PhD, he’s meant to be a prized teacher, but he’s inexperienced and temperamental. Older readers like myself are more likely to be mildly put off by flashbacks that span all the way to the dark ages of the early aughts—oh, great, were we supposed to be earning PhDs during that time? Despite bitter feelings toward the school in general, where he experienced the worst years of his life, he tries to instill in his students the power to fight peer pressure and question authority. “Difference is the essence of extremity” is a motto he promotes to create more independent thinkers. He kicks off his class with a recreation of the Milgram experiment (where the subject thinks they are administering an electric shock to a person who answers questions incorrectly) ostensibly to challenge their attitudes but in reality pitting them against each other. Regardless of Jonah’s inevitable mistakes as a first-year teacher, he has a keen understanding of the social structures of his environment. “…contrary to popular belief, high school did not run according to a horizontal social hierarchy with the nerds as serfs to the popular despots. The alliances and antagonisms were more complicated than the political dealings of a third world country. In high school, you never knew who was your enemy and who was your friend.” That part, Miller got right. (Kelly Roark)
“The Year of the Gadfly”
By Jennifer Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages, $24