Friendship, tragedy, secrets and affairs — all themes that might easily be dismissed by those who scoff at “women’s fiction.” But there’s far more than tawdry circumstances to Beth Gutcheon’s clever, fast-paced and shocking novel — and I couldn’t put it down.
Manhattan dress shop owner Lovie French enjoys her days spent with New York’s elite, up to her elbows in satin and tulle. Trusted for being both discreet and loyal, Lovie’s shop is the destination of choice for many society women. Among them are Dinah Wainwright, a charismatic gossip columnist, and Avis Metcalf, a serious-minded divorcee. Both longtime friends date back to Lovie’s school days — and despite the bond of their friendship with Lovie, the pair have never quite gotten along.
Decades after they once ignored one another at boarding school, Dinah’s son and Avis’ daughter meet and quickly fall in love. Their romance and subsequent life together have sudden and far-reaching consequences, and Lovie is the one left standing in the storm to help piece together everyone’s lives when everything threatens to crumble.
Gossip is a whirlwind. Though it took me a third of the book to get the many dynamic characters straight in my mind, I felt invested in their stories and compelled to find out what happens to them. Gutcheon’s storytelling is non-linear; we bounce around often, moving from boarding-school past to present, but I never felt motion-sick. It worked well: we get the friends’ stories piece-meal, revealing little truths along the way, and I loved that.
Gossip reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Before you go throwing a proverbial book at me for the sacrilege, don’t “X” out of here — in terms of the narrator, Lovie’s first-person omnipresence reminded me of Nick Carraway telling the story of Daisy and Gatsby. We’re obviously being told a story in retrospect, and there’s a sense of foreboding as we move through the years. Though Lovie is undeniably critical to the story, she seems to serve more as storyteller than protagonist.
Dinah is the story’s real dynamo. A gossip columnist with plenty of secrets of her own, I found myself drawn to her character and wanted to see what uproarious thing she would do next. By contrast, Avis — even the name sounds so dull — comes off as the dull fish. Lovie is somewhere in the middle; she seems like a normal, respectable shop keeper, but we know all about a certain clandestine relationship she has carried on. The trio all keep secrets from each other, and truths from themselves . . . and that web eventually ensnares all of them.
Early in the book Lovie notes a historical definition of a gossip. To paraphrase, a “gossip” was one who “stood godparent” to a child — and the “gossiping” would be chatter between both godparents, discussing and worrying over their charge. When Lovie is named godmother to Nicky, Dinah’s son, she takes the role seriously. Having no children of her own, her friends are her family — and Nicky’s life is of particular interest to her. As the years progress, her sense of responsibility for his wellbeing and actions only increases — especially as his own mother seems too caught up in her own dramas to notice him.
Spanning the 1960s all the way to a post-9/11 New York, it was easy to be swept up in Gutcheon’s vivid descriptions of society life and the friendships that shake and shatter her characters. As their loyalties are all tested, Lovie and her solitary life as carried into a maelstrom. The book’s cover — and description — are deceptive; there’s much more happening here than a little friendly rivalry between former schoolmates.
If a book about women with a title like “gossip” doesn’t seem intriguing, I still encourage you to give this one a chance. The explosive ending shocked and astounded me, and no sooner had I finished than I wanted to start it all over again. I knew I’d missed so much in my eagerness to finish. Gutcheon’s Gossip isn’t weighed down with filler; her words are obviously chosen with care. And for a word nerd like me, learning an alternative meaning of “gossip” — and how that theme is carried throughout the book — was fascinating. An excellent read.
4.5 out of 5!