Review: The Year of the Gadfly

But 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.

Gadfly can refer to:

  • “Gadfly”, a fly that annoys horses and other livestock, usually a horse-fly or a botfly
  • Social gadfly, a person who upsets the status quo

Basically, whether you wish to believe or not, high school never leaves you, and is responsible for shaping whom you’ve become today. It also never, ever changes. Some may doubt this opinion of mine, but if so, perhaps skimming through Gadfly will jog your memory. You may have wished for those memories to remain deep deep in the dark depths of forgotten memories, pushed to the back of the dark and dusty places of your mind, but it may also serve to show that no matter the time period, the characters, the setting….high school is that place and experience to be endured, suffered through and escaped from. There will always be the cliques, the jocks, the popular crowd, the wannabes, the cast offs, the meanies, etc. No matter where, what or when – the hazing, initiations, secret societies, popularity contests, feeling that you wish to belong, all of this will always exist in that world called High School.

This novel is multi-layered and unique in its perspective for certain. Miller uses Marvelous Species: Investigating Earth’s Mysterious Biology as a connection to certain students and student life in the prep-school, Mariana and how these students adapt and survive.

Intraterrestrials: These extremophiles thrive in darkness, feeding on poisonous methane and sulfur gases. The renowned molecular philosopher Lucinda Starburst has written that, “intraterrestrials grow strong on substances utterly destructive to human life, and yet they shape our lives at the most fundamental level. They force us to reexamine what it means to create and destroy, to benefit and harm,”


Microbial Invasions: Just as melanin protects human skin from the sun, melanin polymers defend microorganisms against radiation, extreme temperatures and heavy metals. A microbe with low melanin levels can easily fall prey to pathological bacteria.”

Marvelous Species also parallels those that never overcome their time in high school, how they become trapped in this high school induced world and also those that can overcome and move beyond those four life-altering years.

Mutation: Weak microorganisms that have been exposed to foreign chemicals or ultraviolet radiation will often die. But if they survive, they can mutate into a more robust version of their former selves, able to thrive under new conditions.

The story is told through 3 main perspectives: Iris Dupont is the new student at Mariana. She is still overcoming the devestating loss from her best and only friend’s suicide and fancies herself becoming a top investigative journalist like her hero and invisible friend/mentor Edward R. Murrow. Iris speaks to Murrow daily much to the consternation of her parents and those that catch in what appears to be Iris talking to herself. The question of “What would Murrow do?” runs through the text often. She claims to abhor cliches butuses them often. She is also now living in the house that Lily Morgan lived in when her father was headmaster of Mariana. Unknowingly, Lily and Iris (hmmm, interesting, both flower names) begin to lead parallel lives.

Like Murrow, I would be an advocate. Mr. Kaplan and I harbored the same dark shadows, and I understood his grief. So I would uncover what really happened to Justin – accident, suicide or devious plot – and in doing so, restore Mr. Kaplan to his pre-grief state. I would help him heal.

Jonah Kaplan is a former student and now science teacher at Mariana. His twin brother died in an accident/suicide (??) (at first I felt this was very anti-climatic. It occurs matter of factly in the middle of the book and during casual conversation where it is stated that Justin has died in a car crash. There is no build up to this and based on the secrets hiding all around, you would have thought that there would have been a different reason for his death, but to just plop it in to the text and move on without further details was rather disappointing at that moment. However, as the story continues on, you do find there are secrets and a mystery or the real explanation to his death still needs to be discovered.) Johah is haunted and intrigued by the Prisom’s Party, as both a former member of the Trench kids (the unpopular group that hid in the basement of the school) with their Queen of the Geeks Hazel as their leader.

Our makeshift secret society appealed to us the way science fiction did, letting us envision a world in which the forces of good combated the forces of evil. But we weren’t fighting for anything; we were simply railing against a social order that didn’t want us. What seperated us from the current iteration of Prisom’s Party, of course, was the fact that we never put a single idea in to practice…Then the locker vandalism happened. Hazel and I had plotted a million coups, but they – whoever they were – had actually pulled one off. They forced us to consider that Mariana’s secret society was real. And if it was, then the kids in the Trench – the social outcasts who should have been running such a club – had found themselves excluded yet again.

Lily Morgan: Lily is written in the third person as her story takes place 12 years prior to Iris’ current story. her current whereabouts is a mystery. Lily was the headmaster’s daughter, girlfriend of Justin Kaplan and an albino. Lily is just gunning to be part of the crowd, wanting so hard to belong that she finds herself a victim of a terrible and cruel hazing incident that may or may not have led to the suicide of Justin.

For the first time in her life, Lily felt exactly as she’d always wanted to feel: included. It wasn’t about being part of any specific clique; it was the simple knowledge that she was living as a normal teenager was supposed to.

Operating throughout the story, in both Lily, Justin and Jonah’s time as students at Mariana and currently with Iris’ time, is the secret society called Prisom’s Party. The Party is about subverting Mariana’s “Community Code” and exposing the real and shady happenings within the school, its faculty and student body. Iris and Jonah are tasked with uncovering the Prisom Party’s members, both from the past and the present.

Exposing Prisom’s Party didn’t change or even improve the school’s culture. As far as I could tell, most of the kids remained as stressed out, misguided and socially stratified as ever.

It’s between a 3 – 3.5 star read for me. I enjoyed it and shook my head many times at either the memories from high school or from the situations and emotions in the Gadfly. High school. Deep, deep sigh. Whom do you trust? Which circle of friends holds your true friends? Glad it’s all way, way behind me.

Here is what The Year of the Gadfly is about, according to its author, Jennifer Miller (as printed in Shelf Awareness)

Dear Readers,

Iris Dupont is a precocious teenage reporter reeling from tragedy. Jonah Kaplan is a science teacher haunted by his past. As each investigates a vicious secret society in their remote New England prep school, they begin to uncover deeply buried secrets about their school, their town, and each other. THE YEAR OF THE GADFLY was inspired by the sudden death of my high school boyfriend at 17 and by my brother’s ostracism in his prestigious Maryland prep school. Following in the tradition of classic school novels like A Separate Peace, Prep, and The Secret History, it is an exhilarating journey of double-crosses, jealousies, and the lifelong reverberations of losing someone you love.

Best, Jen and @propjen on twitter