With its high-school setting, secret society, and love triangle, The Year Of The Gadfly is a novel for adults with many of the markers of young-adult literature. Miller skillfully uses those elements as a framework for a beautifully written story about straddling the bridge between youth and maturity and the struggle to overcome grief in order to achieve growth.
After Iris’ best friend commits suicide, her family decides she needs a change of scenery and sends her to start her freshman year at a new school, Mariana Academy. There, she forms a connection with Jonah Kaplan, a former student who’s returned to teach biology in an attempt to help his pupils have a better high-school experience than he did. Both wind up investigating Prisom’s Party, a secret society that exposes the dirty deeds of students and faculty alike in the name of defending the school’s honor code. Miller’s pacing is excellent, and she offers just enough clues and revelations to keep things moving while building toward the climax.
Iris is an aspiring journalist who constantly bemoans the use of clichés, ignores her college counselor’s advice that she’d be better off going into public relations, and treats Edward R. Murrow as something between a spiritual mentor and an imaginary friend, with whom she has deep conversations. She plunges into unfolding the novel’s mystery with a zeal Veronica Mars would envy. The Iris chapters are fun, but she feels more like the embodiment of a precocious teen than a real character. That weakness is especially prominent when compared to the development of the other point-of-view characters. Jonah’s classmate Lily provides a stirring look at the desperate adolescent search for belonging, but Jonah’s chapters are strongest. He reveals the dichotomy of a man trapped between unresolved emotions over the past and a desire to build a future. His character has the fullest arc, and the juxtaposition of his chapters and Lily’s show him embroiled in the insecurities of youth and the problems of young adulthood.
Late in the novel, Lily muses on her hatred of “the term ‘coming of age’ and its suggestion of menstrual cycles.” It’s a self-aware comment that helps define The Year Of The Gadfly’s thesis that maturity isn’t defined by any conventional markers of adulthood, like losing your virginity or graduating from high school, but a willingness to emotionally break with childhood and move on to something else. Coming of age isn’t easy for any of Miller’s characters, but their struggles are powerful and empowering.