Jill's Reviews > The Year of the Gadfly

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer   Miller
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May 09, 2012

liked it

This is a difficult book for me to evaluate, because there is no way I’m going to enjoy reading about the bullying and psychological torture of young kids. For that matter, I am ill-disposed from the very beginning to like reading about private academies for privileged kids. There are some aspects to the plot that intrigued me though, and I wanted to see how they played out.

It seems like there are only two types of students at Mariana Preparatory Academy in Nye, Massachusetts: incredibly cruel, or incredibly stupid. The former prey on the latter, as you might expect. The faculty isn’t much better, but to describe them we can add a third category: ineffectual.

The story is told from three points of view. Iris Dupont, 15, a new student at Mariana, wants to be a reporter. Her hero is Edward R. Murrow, and she frequently conducts “conversations” with him in her head. She and her family are residing at the temporarily empty house of the former Mariana headmaster who is away in London. Iris is sleeping in the former bedroom of the daughter, Lily, who provides the second point of view.

Lily is an albino who attended Mariana at the same time as one of Iris’s teachers, Jonah Kaplan. Jonah tells the story from the third point of view. Jonah’s twin brother, Justin, used to be Lily’s boyfriend.

One additional main character has a large role in the story but no point of view of her own, and that is Hazel Greenburg, a contemporary of Lily, Jonah, and Justin, who is important to all of the other characters.

Mariana’s environment is intense; the students are under pressure from their parents to perform academically so they can get into the best schools. They also are subject to the usual adolescent stress to belong, to fit in, and to be popular. Fueled by the influence of a few unbalanced individuals, they come to take all of this tension out on each other. Miller is showing us an “extreme” ecosystem, which is the focus of Jonah Kaplan’s curriculum in science class. As the author explains:

"Extremophile is a scientific category, which literary means “extreme loving.” … The name applies to microscopic organisms that thrive in places inhospitable to life…. I think that’s a pretty apt summary of teenage life…”

And yet, as Mr. Kaplan explains in class, these organisms cannot survive in a “normal” environment. They are trapped, just as the students are trapped in the prep school with its distorted survival mechanisms. Some survive by attacking those who are weaker; some react to the isolation and despair by capitulation to the mutant social system; and some even choose suicide. Iris wants to believe she is better than the others, but she, too, adapts to her new habitat. Even Edward R. Murrow, Iris is finally forced to admit, harbored a complexity and darkness at odds with his public image.

Discussion: One of the recurring discussions in the book is over whether those who give in to the bullying of or entrapment by the stronger students are culpable. As one victim thinks to himself:"You are gullible and disgusting; you brought all of this on yourself.”

It is interesting that every single one of the victims has a similar reaction.

The bulliers justify their behavior in a similar way:"People act within their nature. [The victims] didn’t have to participate… but [they] did.”

The collaborators in bullying too have excuses:"What were we supposed to do? We trusted [that person, who] changed our lives, pulled us out of our pitiful, weak existences….”

At the end of the book, most of the bulliers have not learned anything, nor have the collaborators. This is perhaps the scariest message of the book. Maybe they couldn’t live with themselves if they thought they were wrong. But maybe whatever made them act like that in the first place is so strong that they are impermeable to self-doubt.

I’m not sure how Iris comes out of this. She knows she “had become lost in a moral maze” but she is still so lonely and in search of connection that it’s not clear the choice she makes at the end of the book is any wiser.

Evaluation: The author did a fairly good job of keeping my interest in spite of my dislike of the subject matter and virtually all of the characters. I can’t honestly say I had fun reading it; it is a pretty nightmarish story. But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for a book club: there are plenty of issues in this provocative book to keep any discussion group happy.

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message 1: by Kim (new)

Kim Hollstein Thanks for going into detail about the difficult aspects of this novel and their resolutions...or lack thereof. Now I know I will probably not pick this one up. Saved me a disappointing read. Appreciate it!!!

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