Journalist Miller (Inheriting the Holy Land, 2005) makes her fiction debut with a smoldering mystery set in a New England prep school.
Iris Dupont’s parents have relocated to western Massachusetts, ostensibly so she can attend the prestigious Mariana Academy, but really because they’re worried about Iris. Her best friend Dalia recently committed suicide, and Iris has been observed talking to a wall—actually, she confides, she’s talking to her idol, Edward R. Murrow, and, yes, she knows he’s dead; but their imaginary conversations help smart, ambitious Iris sort out her feelings and remain focused on her goal of becoming a great journalist. She gets plenty to investigate, beginning with a science book containing a mysterious inscription that she finds in the bedroom of Lily Morgan, daughter of Mariana’s former headmaster. The Duponts are temporarily staying in the absent Morgans’ house, a rare contrived premise in an otherwise well-plotted tale that mingles first-person narrations by Iris and biology teacher Jonah Kaplan, who was once a student at Mariana, with the grim story of Lily’s ordeal and departure from Mariana in 2000. The novel occasionally recalls Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), with its tale of a covert student group (Prisom’s Party in this case) up to no good, but it’s far less pretentious, and Miller’s portrait of the way basically decent kids get sucked into destructive behavior is more credible. Prisom’s Party does engage in some very ugly antics, however, and as Mariana’s scandal-racked history unfolds through Iris’ detective work, we see that Jonah was implicated in past wrongdoing as well. The author skillfully ratchets up the tension as Iris (and the reader) finds it harder and harder to tell who the good guys are, particularly after Prisom’s Party sends an appealing boy to recruit her. It’s scarily possible that she will come to share Jonah’s guilt and grief, as she is manipulated into the sort of betrayal that shattered Lily’s life.
A gripping thrill ride that’s also a thoughtful coming-of-age story.