Gossip: A Novel
- Beth Gutcheon
- William Morrow
- 288 pp.
- April 12, 2012
The nature of gossip, with its thin divide between showing concern and inflicting harm, propels three friends towards loss and tragedy in the author’s latest novel.
Reviewed by Susan Guthrie Knight
“The origin of the word gossip in English is ‘god-sibling,’’ author Beth Gutcheon writes. “It’s the talk between people who are godparents to the same child, people who have a legitimate loving interest in the person they talk about. It’s talk that weaves a net of support and connection beneath the people you want to protect.”
Loviah “Lovie” French’s first day at her exclusive Eastern boarding school would not have been a good one except for meeting Dinah. She is a “marvelous creature with huge blue eyes and mad dark hair.” Lovie is a scholarship student, but nobody knows, because Lovie is embarrassed to tell. Dinah is also a scholarship student, which everyone knows, because she tells them. In school, “Dinah watched everyone ... and saw who got it wrong, and how they handled it. She gathered information.” Dinah takes Lovie under her wing.
Lovie’s other friend, Avis, with her brains and breeding, should have been made for the school, but she is shy and hard to read. She is “more at home with adults than children.” Most of the girls know that, when there is a concert of classical music, you don’t clap between movements. Avis and Dinah sat next to each other. Avis knew, Dinah didn’t. Dinah never forgave her.
Unlike her friends, Lovie doesn’t go to college. She doesn’t have the money. It is 1963, and it is not considered necessary for girls to get a higher education unless they are looking for husbands. Lovie isn’t. Instead, because her grandmother still has connections, if not the inclination to send her to college, Lovie goes to work in a high-end Manhattan dress shop. Temperamental Mme. Philomena teaches her how to buy, sell and fit a dress, as well as listen, remember, but never share. Discretion is Lovie’s métier.
After moving on from Mme. P and a stint at Saks as an appointment-only salesperson, Lovie opens her own salon. But this is only peripherally a story about Lovie, who is the onlooker, the reluctant eavesdropper. This is a story about Lovie’s longtime friends, Avis and Dinah, and how Dinah’s dislike and envy, and Avis’ shyness and aloofness, lead to mutual tragedy.
Dinah is a natural leader, vivacious, attractive, energetic. She is a talented writer who lands a job writing about the rich, connected and influential. She loves to say she “slept her way to the middle and made it the rest of the way on talent.” Unlike Lovie, Dinah makes her living by passing along the gossip she hears. A hint from her in print can destroy or enhance a reputation. She lives the glamorous life of the nighttime. She is unlucky in love but she marries, has two boys, and names Lovie as the godmother of her second son, Nick. Lovie loves and wishes to protect Nick, who is perhaps too boyishly attractive and has been spoiled by the people around him, especially Dinah.
Avis, angular, aristocratic and introspective, becomes an art expert whose opinion is sought by moneyed collectors. She marries well, but her husband soon becomes an alcoholic who rarely leaves his study and his bottle. They have one child, Grace, who is ignored by her father and loved distantly by Avis. Grace and Avis are unable to connect, and often use Lovie as a conduit. Avis’ stepmother Belinda is also Grace’s admirer and advisor, as well as Lovie’s wise and constant friend. “It is my observation that the people who enjoy money the most are those who weren’t born with it,” Lovie muses. Belinda married into money, and changed from “a quietly pretty girl in rural Ohio to the Great Inca of New York City, and she enjoyed every cent of it because she never lost the memory of what it was not to have it.” Belinda is the person Lovie talks to.
Lovie listens and understands, gives advice but tries not to interfere as relationships evolve and dissolve. She centers herself in her business and spends as much time as allowed with her married lover. She cannot, however, help overhearing uncharitable comments about her friends, often at charity functions.
The author deftly builds the story toward an emotional and tragic conclusion. “The way the story ends tells you what the story means,” Lovie thinks. Lovie might have influenced how the story developed, but no matter what she might have advised, the ending might have been the same.
The story is the title. Although that title might lead the reader to believe that this is a light-hearted story in the chick-lit genre, Beth Gutcheon has created a devastating tale of how careless talk, envy and jealousy can destroy friendships and sometimes lives. This is not normally my kind of book (it is more serious than a beach book but it is not Joyce Carol Oates), but it held my interest, mostly because of the quality of the writing. The author’s style is fluid and personable; Lovie is talking to a friend, sharing some gossip from years ago, explaining how and why what happened, happened, and mourning those friendships that are gone and the disastrous gossip that was shared and unshared.
Susan Guthrie Knight is a former English teacher and sometime writer. She lives near Gettysburg, Pa., with her husband and French bulldog.