Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
When the first UK edition of Beth Gutcheon’s novel came out last year, I couldn’t resist the allure of the cover (below) in an oversized paperback format with French flaps; now available as a standard paperback (right), the new cover is also striking. Luckily the novel inside is worthy of the glamorous artworks, which represent a single snapshot in the lives of the three women the novel follows …
We start in 1960, when Loviah French is fifteen and enrolling at Miss Pratt’s – a boarding high school for girls. Lovie’s family are from Maine, and she’s a country girl having a hard time settling into this exclusive school that her folks can’t really afford. Thank heavens for Dinah. They met on their first day at school and will remain the best of friends for life through thick and thin. Dinah’s father is a teacher at the school in an exclusive gated community in New England, so she is outside the social set of the other girls. She is a keen observer of how it all works though, and she takes Lovie under her wing.
Lovie’s other real friend is Avis – the shy only daughter of a socialite couple. They also meet at Miss Pratt’s when Avis, three years older, is assigned to be a mentor to Lovie in the classes in etiquette and conversation leading up to coming out as debutantes. Although Avis and Dinah know of each other, at this stage, they are individually friends with Lovie.
Lovie narrates their story and tells how they all came by their careers – Lovie being apprenticed to a dress designer, and eventually setting up an exclusive boutique of her own; Dinah becoming a journalist and having a successful gossip column; and Avis indulging her love of art becoming an expert at an auction house.
We move to 1983 and by now Dinah and Avis are/have been married/divorced and had children. Lovie is still single, but does have a devoted lover – it’s a shame he can’t leave his wife.
Lovie arranges a lunch for the three of them…
‘Doesn’t it seem a century ago that we were all locked up at Miss Pratt’s? To me it seemed like something out of Jane Eyre.’
‘Oh,’ said Avis gratefully, ‘that’s just what I thought! I was so homesick I wanted to weep, most of the time. …
… ‘I thought the whole thing was kind of a hoot,’ said Dinah.
I knew perfectly well she had hated every minute of it. Avis, caught up short, didn’t seem to know what to do.
‘You did not,’ I said.
‘I did. I decided to see if I could break every rule in their pompous little book without getting kicked out, and except for never having a boy in my room, I think I did it.’
Avis looked bewildered. …
… ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the world has changed so much, it all seems quaint now. Think of life before the Pill, or Our Bodies, Ourselves, or Ms. magazine. Before women could be doctors or lawyers-‘
Avis broke in, ‘Isn’t it true? And it’s not just women in professions … in our parents’ world, the professions themselves weren’t really acceptable, were they? Somehow gentlemen lawyers were all right, but when you were growing up, did your parents know doctors or schoolteachers socially?’
My heart had sunk into my shoes. I was saying to myself, Dinah, don’t say it, please don’t say it, when Dinah said, ‘My father is a schoolteacher.’
So Avis and Dinah could never be friends, and Lovie sees them separately through the decades. It is not until Avis’ daughter Grace meets Dinah’s son Nicky and marriage beckons, that they are forced to develop an arms-length relationship. There is a lot of drama along the way as families change over the decades, and it takes us up through 9/11 to a shocking climax that will shock all three to the core. Lovie tells it all.
Lovie is a wonderful character, even if she gets used by everyone including her best friends and lover. Gutcheon’s narrator has an strong eye for detail, setting the scene as the years go by through the fashions and styles of the day. In contrast, Dinah is the loud and confident friend that all quieter girls need to bring them out of their shells – but she is rather apt to shoot her mouth off. It was shy and sad Avis I felt for – for despite being rich, she proves that money isn’t everything.
Once we got past the schooldays, I really enjoyed reading this novel, absorbing myself in the lives of these three women. There’s a somewhat wistful feel to Gutcheon’s writing as Lovie dispenses her secrets gradually. Although this novel is slow-burning, it is peppered throughout with wit and drama, making for a beguiling and satisfying read.
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors. This review was revised from her original here.
Beth Gutcheon, Gossip (Atlantic Books, London, 2013) 978-0857899842 paperback 2014, 288 pages.