GOSSIP By Beth Gutcheon (Atlantic)
BETH Gutcheon is the US author of eight novels, several of which have become US bestsellers. In Britain she is not as well known as, say, Anne Tyler or Joanna Trollope, with whom she shares an elegantly readable prose style and a fascination with the elemental dramas of middle-class family life.
Her ninth novel, Gossip, is set in New York and tells the story of Loviah French, Dinah Kittredge and Avis Binney, who met in 1960 as pupils at a girls’ boarding school.
Loviah, the narrator, is a scholarship student – watchful, observant, out-of-place. She makes friends both with Dinah, who is popular and generous; and with Avis, who is clever and plain.
It is in middle age that Loviah’s narrative begins. There is a particular and terrible reason for her to be looking back over the past half-century, though the secret is not revealed until the very end.
Instead we follow in retrospect the careers of the three women. Loviah trains as a dressmaker. Dinah becomes a columnist. Avis pursues a career as an art adviser to wealthy connoisseurs.
The trio might have drifted apart over the decades, were they not bound together by a sinuously engineered plot device. The eventual detonation of the narrative is something of a red herring, for the shock of it makes it seem as though Gutcheon’s entire novel was progressing towards that single catastrophe, whereas the pleasure of reading it resides in the journey, rather than the arrival.
Gutcheon is not as brilliant a chronicler of the mores of New York as Edith Wharton or Henry James but she shares their fascination with the encrustations that privilege can leave upon the soul. It is a pity that the title makes it sound like chick-lit, for it is far less ephemeral than that.
She writes poignantly, but with a sharp comic edge – about female friendship, the bleakness of fate and the disappointments of love; and her grasp of the profound connection between clothes and emotion recalls Nancy Mitford at her most seriously frivolous. – The Sunday Telegraph