Review: The Year of the Gadfly, Jennifer Miller

In October (or, if you are me writing this post, now) I had this cold where I lost my whole entire voice for several days, and I was all sickly to the point that I stayed home from work, and on the day where I stayed home from work, I sat in my bed under blankets, feeling terribly sad, and I read Year of the Gadfly. This is a very uninteresting story to anyone but me. I don’t get sick that often, so to me this story feels terribly sad, like way overblown sad. Unreasonably sad. Like the death of Little Nell. Poor Jenny. All sickly. Sleeping propped up on pillows like a tubercular Victorian maiden.

Summary per Amazon (y’all, summaries are hard):

Iris Dupont, a budding journalist whose only confidant is the chain-smoking specter of Edward R. Murrow, feels sure she can break into the ranks of The Devil’s Advocate at her exclusive school, Mariana Academy, the Prisom Party’s underground newspaper, and there uncover the source of its blackmail schemes and vilifying rumors. Some involve the school’s new science teacher, who also seems to be investigating the Party. Others point to an albino student who left school abruptly ten years before, never to return. And everything connects to a rare book called Marvelous Species. But the truth comes with its own dangers, and Iris is torn between her allegiances, her reporter’s instinct, and her own troubled past.

I love all the things in this book. Flashbacks. Fancy schools that care a lot about their prestige. Mysteries in the past. Edward R. Murrow. And I tried to go in without expectations so that I wouldn’t be disappointed, which I think I succeeded at! The upshot was that I went through three clear phases:

Phase 1: Crankiness, or, everybody is hateful. Iris is one of those alienated teen protagonists who doesn’t necessarily think she’s better than everyone else she knows, but we don’t get to meet many of the putative peers she doesn’t think she’s better than. The other point of view character, science teacher Jonah Kaplan, thinks he’s better than everyone else and runs his (teenage! teenage!) students through the Milgram experiments. There’s a reason we have IRBs and parental permission forms, MR KAPLAN, and it’s not because we’re mindless sheep.

Phase 2: Acceptance, or, teenagers are like that and I’m going to pretend grown-up Mr. Kaplan is a teenager too because he basically acts like one. About six chapters in, I gave up on worrying about the above annoying things, and instead enjoyed the story. The school has a secret society, the Prisom Party, which claims to want to root out dishonesty and hypocrisy in the school, but does not seem fastidious in its methods. Tapped by students whose faces she cannot see to join them if she roots out the secrets of the past, Iris begins to wonder if she is working for the right side.

Like many books about teenagers, this book about teenagers made me happy that I didn’t go to a cutthroat high school in the manner of those we see in media and in horrific stories about bullying. (My high school was full of geeky people. I could win a lot of arguments using my words.) The flashback sequences have a lot of teenagers being mean, although not necessarily in the ways you think when you start reading. The plot — in flashback and in the present day — really tears along once it gets going. They’re uncovering secrets using old newspapers and people who were there at the time! What happened to Jonah’s twin brother? What made the school close for a while in the older days? How best can Iris live up to her journalistic ethics and the memory of Edward R. Murrow? Secrets, secrets, and still more secrets!

(This was the point in the day at which my cough had mostly abated because I was drinking two gallons of tea, and I was a bit pleased to be sitting in bed reading an entire book.)

Phase 3: Super cranky again; or, I wanted this to play out differently. And just when I thought that the book was going to be more nuanced than I had initially supposed — because the morality of Jonah Kaplan was being heavily questioned, and the morality of the secret society, and the morality of mostly everyone — just when I thought it was going to exceed my Phase 1 expectations, there was the climax portion of the book, in which it gets revealed that (highlight for something that’s not exactly a spoiler but would permit you easily to deduce the ending if you were in the midst of reading the book) one nefarious mustache-twirling sociopath master manipulator is responsible for all the baleful events past and present. Everyone feels better once this person is apprehended. Hooray. Justice is restored. (Hmph.)

I guess I was sad that the book was resolved in such a pat way, because most of what had happened up until that point had resisted — at least to some extent! — the easy explanation. The characters had complicated lives and responded to each other in human ways. They made mistakes and apologized to each other and tried to figure out where to go from there. To have a clear villain at the end felt like a cheat to the rest of the book. And right after that happened, my voice still wasn’t back so I had to go to the urgent care doctor to get helpful anti-sickness drugs at seven PM and then I had to wait for forty-five minutes for the pharmacy to fill the prescription.

That last part is unrelated to the book. I had finished it by then and moved on to something else. I just wanted to complain about that because it made me very cranky and a little girl at the pharmacy sneezed on me. Gross.t

Other reviews, uninformed by minor viral infections (not the flu! I had my flu shot!), may be found here. And now please tell me what your tolerance level is for protagonists who think they are smarter than everyone. Is it fine if the protagonist is under a certain age? Is it always fine, never fine? Do you have to see them doing six really, really smart things right away and then you’ll be on board forever? Tell, please! I think that I am ashamed of being such an arrogant kid, so my tolerance for arrogant kid narrators is lower than it might otherwise be.

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Review: Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld

I went to the library the other day and got all the available books classified under the heading “Boarding schools — Fiction”. Sometimes a girl gets a craving. Prep is about a Midwestern girl called Lee who goes to a fancy Massachusetts preparatory school, Ault, where she feels terribly out of place because she is from the Midwest and because she is not rich but is on a scholarship. Because it might actually be against the rules of literature to write about a girl at a fancy boarding school who comes from the same background as all her peers.

Here is why I didn’t like Prep, and it is a criticism I bet Curtis Sittenfeld has heard a hundred hundred times: Lee is an awful character, and for a book that is clearly intended as a bildungsroman, Prep doesn’t show Lee coming of age at all. You start the book, and here is Lee, this passive girl who acts like she thinks everyone wants her to act, and she’s kind of racist, and you think okay, she’s going to change and grow up and become a better person. But instead of that, she never ever changes and she doesn’t become a better person at all. Just mopes around feeling inadequate and sorry for herself and resenting people. She recognizes the unpleasant ways that she behaves, but it does not inspire in her any wish to change.

My coworker, when she discovered I was reading Prep, said “UGH. STOP. It’s the WORST BOOK EVER,” but I do not agree. I agreed with her specific criticism — that Lee was a really unpleasant character and I didn’t want to spend one chapter with her, let alone all the chapters — but I didn’t think it was anything like the worst book ever. I didn’t like it but it wasn’t the worst book ever. My strong affection for boarding school books, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing and sometimes incisive insights, kept me going.

I mean, more or less — there were times when I got bored of the huge sack of nothing that was happening, and skipped ahead a bit to see if things were happening a few pages on (spoiler alert: not really). It wasn’t that the events could not have been made interesting; it’s that Lee was so unpleasant, and everything was filtered through her, and that made even dramatic events — a classmate’s attempted suicide — seem rather tedious and you wished the book would move on already.

In the interests of full disclosure, here is the personal bias that turned me permanently against the book: Lee’s a jerk to her parents when they come to visit on visitors’ day. I hate books where teenagers with kind and well-intentioned parents are mean to them. Lee hurts her father’s feelings and makes her mother cry and won’t introduce them to her best friend’s parents because she’s ashamed of them. Shut up Lee.

They read it too:

Iris on Books
Liv’s Book Reviews
She Reads Novels
A Book a Week
Leeswammes’ Blog
American Bibliophile
3 Evil Cousins
Book Nook Club
Hope’s Bookshelf
Reading Keeps You Sane
Rat’s Reading
Books for Breakfast

Wow, I haven’t done that in a while. Let me know if I missed yours!