The question of whether we ever know when we are being cruel runs through this darker-than-you’d-expect novel by Beth Gutcheon. And of course she doesn’t mean drowning kittens or running amok with an axe; she is talking about the kind of everyday social cruelty that comes from aligning oneself to one friend rather than another or to reaching blindly and impatiently towards desires and failing to notice others in the way. This concern is all bound up with the title – for the origin of the word ‘gossip’, the narrator tells us, is ‘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.’ As the story gradually wends its way towards an unexpected tragedy, so it seems that even the most supportive and loyal love can exact a terrible price.
I need to say straight off that this is an old-fashioned sort of novel. A lot of the story takes place through the sixties and seventies and although we end up in the present day, that’s the era dominating the expectations and behaviours of our narrator. Loviah French runs an exclusive boutique dress shop in Manhatten and her philosophy of life is very bound up with her daily work, which is to hide a woman’s flaws and enhance her social worth through the clothes she wears. Discretion is her watchword at all times. The social spectrum she moves in is akin to that micromanaged by Edith Wharton – the last gasp of moneyed folk who gained their self-esteem from being born into established wealthy families. And although everything I’ve told you about this book could lead to the misinterpretation that this is a piece of chick-lit, or some sort of throwback blockbuster, it isn’t that at all. It’s a serious novel with some intriguing questions, smoothed over by an icy cool narrative voice that could belong to one of Hitchcock’s blondes. I love that kind of writing, and find it elegant and smooth to read, though if you are expecting the cosy, chummy warmth of contemporary genre fiction or the slightly over-written sensationalism of a Gone Girl, you’ll find it flat and low on emotion. This is an easy book to mis-label and the wrong expectations could seriously spoil the reading experience.
So anyhoo, our tale begins back in boarding school, where Loviah French is the scholarship girl. She makes friends with two young women who have a great deal more self-assurance – Dinah, who is vivacious, full of fun and confident, but a hater and a grudge-bearer too. And Avis, a cooly superior brain whose basic kindness and generosity can be concealed by a rather awkward manner. After an unfortunate incident during a school trip to a concert, Avis unintentionally puts Dinah down, and Dinah will never, ever forgive her for it.
The friends grow up and take on quite significant careers – Lovie goes into the dressmaking trade, Avis buys art for collectors, and Dinah becomes a celebrity journalist, running a gossip column that keeps her in the public eye. They gain romantic attachments, though none of them are truly successful – Avis’s husband is a rich alcoholic, Dinah marries for love and is betrayed, and Lovie falls for a married man and must manage her expectations accordingly. Not for her are the children who bring such compensation to the lives of her friends, although she becomes godmother to Dinah’s youngest son, Nick, a delightful, talented boy who will be indulged by love.
We know that some sort of dreadful event will occur, but have no idea what it is, so the reader is teased time and again as the story unfolds by all sorts of semi-dramatic happenings in the lives of the main characters. Which ones will combine to produce the awaited tragedy? I confess that even up to the very end, I never saw it coming, and in fact, if there is a flaw in this novel, it was for me the blindsiding nature of the climax: it wasn’t as causally motivated as I’d hoped. Though really, all the pleasure of this novel lies in the journey, and it is a highly pleasurable one, enriched by the sort of deep character portraits that are too rare a find. It’s extremely easy to read but it’s by no means lightweight – instead Beth Gutcheon suggests that we underestimate the impact of the trivial, for what’s meaningless gossip to one person is devastating to another, and the collapse of a good life can so easily result.