Monday, April 2, 2012
By Beth Gutcheon
New York, HarperCollins, 2012
278 pages Fiction
I had just finished reading a novel I could hardly get through when I picked up Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. And before I knew it, I was thoroughly involved. What looks like “Chick Lit” from the cover is a deeply engrossing character study of people that ostensibly would be considered the superficial Upper East Side rich.
Gossip is most definitely a New York story, told by Lovie, a dressmaker to the affluent. Discretion is one of her bywords, and in telling the story of her relationship with two friends from her boarding school days, Dinah and Avis, we are constantly aware of her ability to maintain relationships without the need to tell everything she sees or hears. She is so discrete that it is about half the book before we learn the name of her lover, an older married man. She calls him “my friend.”
The story begins at a boarding school where Lovie and Dinah are scholarship students, and Avis is an older, wealthy upperclassman. We follow their story through the years with Lovie as the narrator until they are in their 60s and there is a shocking conclusion to the story. The characters are an interesting lot in a dynamic setting. And because the story is told in an “eye-witness” style, the reader is able to keep a measure of detachment from the characters and the action. We almost hover above them. It is a useful literary device, in some ways reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, as one reviewer observed. I was reminded of the way gossip was utilized in the narration of the play, Six Degrees of Separation, in order to let the viewer remain above the fray in that drama.
Gutcheon explores the term “gossip” in many ways. She uses it in its oldest meaning—the godparent—to its current meaning at its best—sharing information about people we care about—and its current meaning at its worst—passing along vicious and ugly lies. In a posting on her blog, Gutcheon has this to say about gossip: “Gossip, in the good sense and its first sense, is absolutely necessary to society and also just about unavoidable. We can’t each independently keep ourselves apprised of the well-being of all the people we care about; we share and pool information, whether at the baptismal font or on Facebook. Gossip, in its full range of current meanings though, is an interesting subject because it now runs the moral gamut from constructive to malignant. We can easily tell the difference between the kinds of gossip out at the ends of the spectrum, benign and affectionate exchanges of information about absent loved ones on one end, versus malicious, uninformed or exploitive retailing of what doesn’t concern us at the other.” The moral dilemma Lovie faces concerns the way in which she wades through the gossip that she hears in her shop and social milieu. What is she hearing and seeing that should be shared?
We are reminded that the Upper East Side is a small community where people have lived for years and years and to some degree it has the essence of a village, where information is freely shared and people know everyone. Gossip is an enlightening look at that village and the lives that unfold there.
If you like reading New York stories, you might also be interested in Red Tails in Love, which tells the story of some red-tailed hawks who live in Central Park and the cadre of acquaintances that document their lives (villagers in a huge city).
Beth Gutcheon's website: http://www.bethgutcheon.com/
An interview with Gutcheon about her writing process: http://www.book-in-a-week.com/2012/03/interview-with-beth-gutcheon/