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Going Back to School

Two Novels

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller (Houghton Mifflin, $24) and An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer (Harper Collins, $24.99) have been described by critics as heirs to the legacies of such prep school tales as Dead Poets Society and Prep. Students learn about themselves, who they are and who they are willing to push themselves to be.
In The Year of the Gadfly, main character and student journalista extraordinaire Iris Dupont routinely talks to the long-dead journalist Edward Murrow as a personal and professional muse. Her switch to prep school Mariana Academy after the death of a friend changes her own life.

When Dupont starts at the elite school, she’s intrigued by her young biology teacher, Jonah Kaplan, his iconoclastic theories and dynamic teaching style. He becomes one of the narrators in the story, as does Lily, the daughter of a former headmaster whose childhood room Dupont now occupies. These three lives overlap mysteriously — when the Prisom’s Party, an underground organization of students, demands that Iris find out more about Kaplan’s past.

The mystery and intrigue of Gadfly renders it a closer match with the cult flick “Heathers” than Harry Potter, and its gothic suspense works to its advantage. It becomes harder and harder to put the book down until you have ridden the roller coaster plot to its surprising conclusion. Miller’s descriptions are considered and thoughtful, as when Iris observes, “My father waved too, but he looked relieved, as though the car were suddenly lighter without my emotional burdens.”

While the writing by Elizabeth Percer in An Uncommon Education is often lovely (“It can be dangerous to look forward too much, to think always of what should be instead of accepting what is”), her protagonist, Naomi, seems more like a supporting character than a focal point.

Naomi Feinstein has set her eyes on becoming a doctor ever since childhood. At Wellesley she feels like an outsider until she meets the women of the Shakespeare Society and is drawn into their worlds of acting and intrigue.

Naomi becomes enmeshed in a scandal at Wellesley, but one that pales in comparison to the intrigue of Gadfly. Ostracized as a child — the hallmark of almost all intelligent children in literature — Naomi has a friend in her neighbor Teddy, a boy adopted by a religious Jewish family. When their friendship becomes too close, Teddy is taken away. Between being robbed of Teddy’s friendship and her father’s sudden heart attack, Naomi is convinced that nothing she cares for will linger, and she responds by adopting a level of clinical distance.

Percer seems content to allow the action to take place behind a glass wall: we as readers can see what is going on, but cannot live or feel the action. One comes away from An Uncommon Education with a sense of sadness for what could have been for the characters — none of whom, it would seem, ever becomes truly happy .

Jordana Horn is a lawyer, mother and writer working on her first novel.