Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Wrinkle in the Formula

The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller, is the story of a 14 year old girl, Iris, who is starting school in a new town, after her best friend from her former school committed suicide.  Iris has an imaginary friend, Edward R. Murrow, who she speaks to, sometimes aloud.  Iris doesn't need a rubber bracelet on her arm to remind her to ask WWERMD?  because she is constantly asking him what he would do in every situation.  At her new school, Mariana Academy, a group of rebels, who call themselves Prisom's Party, is exposing wrong doing among the staff and students.  However, no one knows who is in Prisom's Party, and the way in which they bring the misdeeds to light is more sensational than informative.  Iris sets off to find out who is in Prisom's Party, and what their motives are, but quickly finds herself tangled between a loyalty that she feels to a teacher and what she will have to do in order to find out more about the secret group.

I first heard about this book when the author, Jennifer Miller, sent me a message on GoodReads saying that since I had given Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl a 5 star rating, I would like her book too.  I was a little leery, thinking that Miller may have self-published her book, but I checked out the reviews on Amazon, and found that people liked The Year of the Gadfly, and that they also compared it to Special Topics.

As you will recall from my discussion of The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont a couple of months ago, there are certain books that follow a formula that I like.  This formula involves a student starting at a new school, identifying a group of students who he or she admires, and then once the student is finally accepted by the group, he or she learns that they are keeping a secret which the student would be better off not knowing.  When I discussed The Starboard Sea, I left out one other important element - there should be a teacher, with some degree of knowledge about the secret, and some involvement with the group.  Books using this formula are Special Topics, The Secret History  by Donna Tartt, and The Hidden by Tobias HillGadfly is also a formula book, with the wrinkle that the story takes place partially in 2000, and partially in 2012.

In the part of Gadfly set in 2000, the story mostly involves Jonah and Justin, who are twin brothers attending Mariana, Hazel, who is a year older, and Lily, who is dating Justin.  In 2012, Jonah has returned as a teacher at Mariana, Hazel has a job in town, and Iris is attending the school, while living in Lily's old house.  In terms of the formula, there are cliques and secrets in both 2000 and 2012, but the outsider isn't really admitted to the clique in either year.  There is a teacher, Jonah, involved in the 2012 story, but not in 2000.  The secret in both years involves the newcomer's admission to the group, and not a separate secret that the new person finds out.

Gadfly  is a complicated story, where the reader really never knows who to trust.  Iris being so young and talking to Murrow gave the story a Harriett the Spy feel which made it seem unsophisticated at first.  I think that Miller has Iris talk to Murrow so that the reader questions whether Iris is a reliable narrator, to add to the confusion.  In the end, everything ties together nicely, without feeling contrived.

In my library, Gadfly was in the mystery section, which I think is a little strange.  It isn't really a mystery - it is more like Iris is investigating what there is to investigate.  I guess that the identity of the people in Prisom's Party is a mystery, but that's not really essential to the story.  I would consider this book to be good prep school fiction, but not a mystery.

Next up:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

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