Books often present adolescent angst as more organized than it actually is. Books for and about teenagers are full of secret societies, secret passageways in the bowels of high schools, passwords and codes that are passed along through the years as student leaders graduate and others take their place. These societies always seem to have at their core some unrealistically grand and idealistic purpose like “eliminating hypocrisy from the universe” (that’s an exaggeration of the purpose of Prisom’s Party, the secret society in Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly, but it’s close enough), but their methods generally involve a lot of good old-fashioned bullying.
I was puzzled as I read this book about whether it was meant as a young adult novel. No one will tell me (and by ‘no one’ I mean neither Amazon nor the copyright page of my copy of the novel – the only two places I looked), which probably means that it is not meant specifically for teenagers. I think this novel might be a tough sell to some teenagers because some of its key characters are in their late twenties and early thirties, and thirty year-old characters are a bit of a turnoff for teenagers – especially when said characters have sex. Still, the tone of this novel is more appropriate for a young adult novel than for a work of general-interest fiction (and it follows the typical plot format of the young adult novel as I laid it out here), and I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had known from the outset what I was in for.
This story has two plot lines. In 2012, the protagonist is Iris Dupont – an anxious, wounded high school freshman with a passion for investigative journalism. After her best friend commits suicide, her parents decide to move to the small town of Nye, Massachusetts, where Iris can attend a rigorous private school called Mariana Academy. Iris is frustrated at the student editors of the school newspaper, who fail to recognize her journalistic talent, and she is intrigued by a young teacher, Jonah Kaplan, who is also new to the school. She and her parents are living near the school in a house owned by family friends who are temporarily out of the country. She sleeps in the bedroom of these friends’ daughter Lily, who attended Mariana Academy about a decade earlier, and she enjoys studying the collection of mementoes Lily left behind.
The second plot line takes place in 2000, when Jonah Kaplan, Jonah’s twin brother Justin, and Lily were all students at Mariana. In both plot lines, themes of belonging and not belonging are at the forefront. Lily is the daughter of the headmaster, and she stands out for this reason. She is also an albino, and her parents have always protected her fiercely. She’s known for being sheltered and naïve. She dates Justin Kaplan but has an antagonistic relationship with his twin, Jonah. Lily also idolizes a quartet of mean girls called the Studio Girls, who are artsy-fartsy and pretentious, as per usual. She keeps detailed notes on their behavior and personalities – notes that Iris later finds and reads.
In both plot lines, the students are aware of an underground organization called Prisom’s Party, which was supposedly created by the school’s founder as a way of making sure the real power in the school stayed in the hands of the students, not in the hands of any faculty or administrators (as if any founder of a school would do that). Officially, the group was disbanded decades earlier after a scandal that seems cribbed from Fred and George Weasley’s rebellion against Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Unofficially, there are rumors that the group is still around. Of course there are rumors that the group is still around.
Other plot elements include a girl named Hazel, friend of the Kaplan brothers, classmate of Lily, and key player in the Prisom’s Party mystery in both the 2000 and 2012 plots; an initiation rite Lily endures at the hands of the Studio Girls; lots of gratuitous Orwell allusions; a bunch of nonsense about microbiology that seems to be trying to say something symbolic about people who are different from the norm; and Justin Kaplan’s accidental-death-or-possibly-suicide, which took place in 2000 and is still relevant in the 2012 plot. Oh, and also: Iris also channels the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. He’s her hero as a journalist, which is well and good, but when he materializes in physical form to lecture Iris on ethics and remind her that no one is perfect, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little.
I think it’s true that secret societies sometimes exist, and it is certainly true that teenagers (like children, like adults) are manipulative and cruel toward one another. It is also true that people are wounded by the deaths of close friends. Yet I can’t remember the last time I read a book with one of these plot lines that didn’t strike me as contrived and forced. I think that in most cases adolescent angst doesn’t have a focal point. Grieving over a dead friend or feeling ashamed and hurt at having been the victim of a cruel prank are perfectly rational feelings, and in most cases I think adolescent angst is nowhere near this rational. I remember wishing I had an enemy to fight so I could have something useful to do with all the anger and frustration I felt for no reason. But writing well about feelings that can’t be rationally explained is not an easy thing to do, and readers of fiction want plots to proceed in rational ways. It takes confidence and skill, then, to create a character who is as wounded as Iris Dupont without having had a friend commit suicide, or a character as driven and manic as Jonah Kaplan who doesn’t feel guilty for his role in his brother’s death and enraged by the betrayal of his friend Hazel. But the majority of writers of young adult fiction are adults, and they feel uneasy inhabiting rooms of pure emotion not catalogued or contained.
I’m a little surprised by the tone in this review – I did not expect it to be this negative. I enjoyed the first half of the book, and while I rolled my eyes often in the second half and was happy when it was over, I found it generally to be a quick and mostly pleasant read. But when I was summarizing the plot, I caught myself wanting to skip over huge chunks of it because I didn’t want to admit that I spent four days of my life reading something so silly. I recommend this book to young adult readers (don’t worry, kiddos – there really isn’t that much thirty-year-old sex in it) and to adults who like and/or are in the mood for a quick read that says lots of things about adolescence that we have all already heard many times before.