The time has come for another Kveller book club discussion! This month we read Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller. This book sucks you right into the crazy world of a hyper-intensive East coast prep school, featuring new student Iris Dupont, a budding journalist and occasional hallucinator, and an underground secret society that may or may not be ruining everybody’s lives.
Below you’ll find our chat about the book among our contributing editors, as well as our *guest star commentator*, Kveller reader Jennifer Grackin Steinberg. If you read along this month, add your thoughts about the book in the comments below, as we’d LOVE to hear them.
Then remember to join us for a Twitter chat with author Jennifer Miller (@propjen) tomorrow at noon. You’ll be able to follow along with the #kvellerlit hash tag.
Molly: Of Iris, Jonah, and Lily, who was your favorite narrator/perspective? I found myself pretty partial to Iris, maybe because we got to know her first and also maybe because she is a semi-delusional nerd who feels very passionately about her art and, well, I can relate.
Jordana: I also loved Iris most. I found her intelligence and, yes, nerdiness, appealing. I’m not sure if Jonah turned me off because of my first impressions of him through Iris’s eyes, or because of how Miller wrote him–I’m inclined to think the former, as I was impressed over and over again by Miller’s dexterity.
Adina: I guess I’d say I like Iris best too, though she also irks me, but less so than the others. I am not buying the Edward Murrow fixation, though. I agree with Jenn–Jonah is a caricature. In fact, when I picture him, I picture a cartoon drawing. But I kind of do that for Iris also. I picture her as Marcie from Peanuts, or some other character with big glasses. I think this is because the book has this kind of comic-book-air about it. As Jordana said, Miller’s dexterity (with language) is impressive. Some of her descriptions are really fresh. But then some of the sentences are too heavily loaded with words. And here I go hijacking the conversation.
Carla: I’m actually going to say that I like Lily the best. In terms of characters, I found her the most relatable (if that’s a word – I’m working on very little sleep here), and she just made the most sense to me. I agree that Jonah was somewhat of a caricature, and I found his desire for/connection to Hazel to be somewhat annoying, even before I got to the end of the book. I liked Iris a lot, but as a social worker, I was somewhat distracted by her relationship with Murrow – I couldn’t decide if she was actually psychotic and should be on some kind of anti-psychotic medication, or if her “conversations” with him were more along the lines of an imaginary friend, which could be normal given the grief she was going through. Anyway, I really liked Lily, especially at the end, when we learn just a bit more about what she made of her life.
I have a question about the book that I would like to throw out to the group. Did you all feel like the Jewish details (Jonah, Justin, & Hazel being Jewish) were relevant, interesting, useful, at all? What did you make of them?
Jordana: I’ve been thinking about this and decided that yes, “Jews as outsiders’” seemed to be the operative paradigm. The Kaplans and Greenburgs were very much not of the Dead Poets Society ilk. I may be more sensitive to this point though in light of my own experience–went for five years to a mostly non-Jewish private school replete with skinny blondes, where the LL Bean sweater with the dots on it was the pinnacle of fashion (for whatever reason, that sort of sums it up best). That being said, I sometimes felt that Hazel’s depiction in particular verged on parody: the whole zaftig lushness of Hazel, the mouthy intelligence, the abrasiveness that could either be intoxicating or off-putting. Nu?
Carla: I agree with all of that… and I think the Jew thing mostly worked for me, except for the part where the author was trying to paint a connection between Jonah Kaplan and the current headmaster of the school, Pasternak, around their shared Jewiness. That seemed super contrived. Otherwise, the Jew theme mostly worked for me.
Adina: I remember learning in grad school that you’re not supposed to ascribe aspects of an author’s “real” life to her fiction writing–meaning, it doesn’t matter what Jennifer Miller’s life is truly like, we’re supposed to assume she infused her fiction with fibers from her imagination. Er, whatever. Miller’s Dad was a State Department official who negotiated at Oslo…her own nonfiction book about Israel, her work with Seeds of Peace, her chumminess with the likes of Christiane Amanpour, Sam Donaldson, Brian Williams, Robert Siegal and other media personalities–see her book trailer!!–seem to suggest that Miller might have thrown in some Jewy stuff because it might have felt weird to her to write a book without it. That said, none of the Jewy stuff, to me, seemed adequately folded into the text, and in fact, struck me as off-note. I liked the comic book quality of the story, and didn’t feel the need to be pulled out of that to read about, well, Jews. Though the zaftig portrait of Hazel in all of her Jewess glory didn’t strike me as any more of a parody than the other characters…
Jennifer: How does everyone feel about Lilly? I’ll withhold my comments for responses.
Molly: I found Lily pretty likeable. In fact, I might find her the most likeable character in the book. Like what Carla said earlier, she’s relatable (it IS a word, Carla)–she wants a normal high school experience with a normal boyfriend and normal girlfriends, but everything is against her–her albinism, the fact that her dad is the headmaster (ugh, that must be the worst). I really felt for her when they were filming “Sacrificial Lamb,” and it was one of those moments where I could totally see myself doing the very same thing in high school, if given the opportunity. Anyone else?
Carla: Molly–I’m with you, as I said before. Also, the way the book ended–Lily was the only one who gave me hope. Well, Iris did too, but I still can’t decide if she’s schizophrenic or not. I tend to think not, but that’s another issue…
Molly: Oh, speaking of schizophrenia, did anybody else think for at least a little while that maybe Dalia was completely made up, too? The passages about her seemed to be either dream-like and hazy or very idealized, and for at least a little while I thought that she could have been Iris’s first “imaginary friend” and maybe her parents forced her to stop talking about her and so she killed her off.
Adina: I actually thought the scenes of Dalia at first were a touch romantic, and imagined that maybe iris was in love with her. But I quickly realized this wasn’t that kind of book.
Jennifer: Now I’m wondering how real the end of the book was because it all seemed very odd. I’m questioning how much of the book, at least the part from Iris’s POV, actually happened. Jonah, Hazel–I buy all of that to some degree. Hazel was damaged in so many ways by her mother, by Justin’s death– she was as much a mess as her car. Jonah was stuck at the time of his brother’s death and I’m still not sure he’s moving on by joining his parents in the Cook Islands. The Lily story, believable until the end with the magically appearing $75K and the escape and the move back to Boston just when Iris was going to Boston–I’m wondering if all of that was in Iris’s head.