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Enduring Patterns: Jane Shilling Reviews Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

By Jane Shilling for the Sunday Telegraph

Beth Gutcheon is the American author of eight novels, several of which have become US bestsellers. She shares an elegantly readable prose style and a fascination with the elemental dramas of middle-class family life with writers like Anne Tyler and Joanne Trollope.

Her ninth novel, Gossip, is set in New York and tells the story of Loviah French, Dinah Kittredge and Avis Binney, who met in 1960 as pupils at a genteel girls’ boarding school. French, the narrator, is a scholarship pupil – watchful, observant and out of place. She makes friends both with Kittredge, who is popular and generous; and Binney, who is clever and plain. Kittredge and Binney take an instant dislike for each other, which endures – like their separate friendships with French – into middle age.

It is in middle age that French’s narrative begins. There is a particular and terrible reason for her to be looking back over the past half-century, though the secret is not revealed until the very end of the novel.

We follow in retrospect the careers of the three women. French trains as a fashionable dressmaker. Kittredge becomes a successful newspaper columnist. Binney pursues a career as an art adviser to wealthy connoisseurs, one of whom she marries.

The trio might have drifted apart over the decades were they not bound together by a sinuously engineered plot device. The eventual detonation of the narrative is something of a red herring, for the shock of it makes it seem Gutcheon’s entire novel were progressing towards that single catastrophe, whereas the pleasure of reading it resides in the leisurely journey, rather than the precipitate arrival.

Gutcheon is not as brilliant a chronicler of the mores of New York as Edith Wharton or Henry James but she shares their fascination with the encrustations that privilege can leave upon the soul. It is a pity that the title makes it sound like chick lit, for it is far less ephemeral than that.

She writes poignantly, but with a sharp comic edge, about female friendship, the bleakness of fate and the disappointments of love. Her grasp of the profound connection between clothes and emotion recalls Nancy Mitford.

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