Oh, heaven — a Beth Gutcheon novel narrated by a woman who runs a Madison Avenue boutique. I really don’t think there’s a writer working today who is as good on women’s clothes as Gutcheon: not just what they look like, but also how they work physically (hems, seams, gussets, cuffs) and emotionally (armor, comfort, flattery, uniform). What’s more Loviah French — “Lovie” to her many friends — is that useful character to a novelist, the observant watcher, at one remove from the action.
The action in this instance is the doings of old-school New York society, not the world of a Donald Trump but the much quieter world of old money that goes about its business with as little fuss as possible. The key characters meet at Miss Pratt’s School in the 1960s and form friendships that give Gossip its backbone. Lovie is a scholarship student from Maine, perpetually on the margins, even as an adult when the great love of her life turns out to be a married man. Avis is the reserved daughter of remote wealthy parents, saddled through life with a kind of reflexive formality. Dinah is the brassy babe, larger than life and ready to break any rule. It sounds formulaic when I sum them up this way, but I guarantee, they feel like real women. (Actually, I have to admit that Dinah eventually took on the features of former New York Magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene and I could never see her straight after that — maybe you won’t have the same problem.)
And the gossip of the title? Here’s what I really appreciated: many of the novel’s most important incidents are recounted at second hand. Lovie hears things through Avis or Dinah; overhears chatter in a doctor’s office, at a restaurant, in her shop. We rarely see her with her longterm boyfriend; those scenes are recounted remotely. “We used to go to….” “Sometimes we would…” “Gil always liked…” We receive the drama as if it were… well, you know. Maybe in another writer’s work this would create distance, but Gutcheon creates the illusion that the reader is part of the world she’s writing about. As a narrator, Lovie is that engaging.
Years pass, complications ensue, beloved characters die. Gutcheon is adroit with the passage of time, and maintains the sense of a small world. We’re always aware of emotional currents, yet also aware of the missed connections between characters. Until finally a couple is seen through a subway window, a cell phone goes astray, and tragedy ensues.
Much as I loved this book, the ending knocked me for a loop. Until then, we’re in the world of a latter-day Edith Wharton. Afterward, it’s the world of the tabloids, and I’m still having trouble stitching the two together. Not long before the end of the novel, Lovie says, “The way the story ends tells you what the story means.” Which I marked, because it’s true. Yet the way Gossip ends retrospectively transforms the entire book (from The Custom of the Country to Ethan Frome, in a way.) Gutcheon’s a wonderful writer so this is no accident. It’s a tribute to her that I’m still worrying away at what she had in mind.