Jennifer Miller’s debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, has been billed as reminiscent of such classics as John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and the author outright references both books by name in the text.* The comparison is apt in that the novel features adolescents and highlights the dark side of human nature, but there are risks to making such a connection. The analogy to iconic books I loved during my childhood may have nudged me toward purchasing Miller’s novel, but it set my expectations too high. I started this novel hoping it would be a future classic, and found myself disappointed by each and every imperfection. It’s possible that my rosy memory of these classic works would not withstand a re-read, but, either way, debut authors need to be careful before drawing parallels between their work and beloved literature.
Miller’s novel, which alternates perspectives, begins with Iris Dupont, a fourteen-year-old aspiring journalist who enters Mariana Academy, “the paragon of New England prep schools,” after suffering a heart-wrenching loss. She idolizes Edward R. Murrow, who is not only a historical figure to her but also an imaginary mentor. I liked Iris, partly because, to borrow a line from her teacher Mr. Kaplan, “I recognized in her my own teenage intensity.” When Iris finds herself caught between Mariana’s ruling Community Council and a vigilante group that challenges the social hierarchy, she must rely on her journalistic skills to unravel the historical mystery at the root of the upheaval.
I loved the first fifth of the book, particularly when Iris Dupont or Jonah Kaplan was at the helm of the narrative, but I read the remaining four-fifths of the novel just to see how it ended.** With the increasing role of Prisom’s Party, a secret society that operates under the radar of Mariana’s administrators, faculty, student body, and the parents, the story became too far-fetched and left too many holes for my liking.
In particular, I didn’t buy the reasons Miller gives for why Jonah Kaplan would return as a teacher to a school that almost expelled him when he was a student, or why the school would ever trust him so much in the first place. I also didn’t understand how Iris’ parents, whom Kaplan described as, “myopically bent on their child’s protection and success,” would have no idea about her activities or would let her hang out and even sleepover someone’s house without having ever met the person! Furthermore, how could Mariana administrators control the day-prep’s PR so tightly in 2012-13, when, presumably, students have access to modern technology and participate in dinner-time conversations with their parents? I also have questions about some of the legal issues that didn’t quite add up, such as the absurdly halfhearted investigation of what is essentially possession of child pornography (but not recognized by the novel as such) because high school student Matt Sheridan was most likely a minor.***
Despite these flaws, The Year of the Gadfly still manages to be a thought-provoking read about survival in a hostile school environment. It reminds us of the importance of the “gadfly,” those who “no matter how hard… opponents try to swat [them] away… [keep] biting… with difficult questions.” It warns us about how easy it is to succumb to the pernicious influence of the herd mentality even when we think we’re dissenting. Even dissenters should welcome dissent among their ranks.
Individuals who are willing to go against the pack are vital to a thriving democracy. In the United States, the importance of dissent is enshrined in our Constitution through the First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression from government intrusion. We also have a range of other laws, such as whistleblower protection laws, that protect certain classes of employees from retaliation for speaking out about abusive practices in the government or at their workplaces.
However, gaps in these laws often render protection for dissenters ephemeral or non-existent, making it much easier to swat at a gadfly than to be one. The First Amendment, for example, applies unevenly to student and faculty speech in public schools, and doesn’t apply at all to private schools like Mariana Academy (if it were real). See, e.g., Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006)(not a school case, but its holding that statements made by public employees pursuant to their official duties do not receive full constitutional protection under the First Amendment has implications for school employees).
In Mariana’s hostile environment of suppressed speech and collective bullying, it’s heartening to see Iris and Jonah persevere, even if aspects of the plot simply didn’t work for me. I liked the main characters enough to want to know what’s next for them, and I hope that in this fictional universe, newspapers still exist for Iris when she grows up.
*The novel’s fourteen-year-old protagonist would probably chide me for using passive voice.
**With my Kindle, I know I had read exactly 22% of the novel when I stopped loving it.
***(very minor spoiler) According to a conversation Sheridan has when he was “barely eighteen” in November 2012, he had befriended someone online in the fall of November 2011, and he sent sexually explicit pictures of himself to that person by the end of the first semester of that year (according to what Mary Ann Rayburn says about the destruction of the Prisom Artifacts). So, he was 17.
****I highly recommend viewing this lighter take on herd mentality from The Mitchell and Webb Look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK-kWRAVmRU.