Beth Gutcheon isn't as well-known here as in the US, so I was delighted a few weeks ago to come across her latest novel when my favourite Charing Cross Road bookshop was having an everything goes for £1 basement sale.
Gossip reminded me of Mary McCarthy's The Group and Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything and it's very skilfully done, even if they do it better. Loviah, Dinah and Avis met at a girls' boarding school in 1960. Loviah, the narrator, is the scholarship girl, the outsider; she hones her powers of discretion when dealing with society women who are the clientele of her designer dress shop. Dinah becomes a gossip columnist. Avis is more old school monied New York.
Gutcheon's previous novel Still Missing (one of my favourite Persephone titles) had me on the edge of my seat ... so I kept waiting for something to happen. It does, in the end, but this is a slow, slow build-up and when we got there, I found that I didn't really believe in the ending. But, as in Still Missing, Gutcheon is brilliant at describing the ripples of connection running through a community or through well-heeled society. She is also brilliant at describing clothes, down to the last button or the sit of a collar. Gossip has been a good bank holiday read, I galloped through most of it in an afternoon ... but that's as far it goes.
My coat pockets are always full of scribbled paper confetti, memos of book titles and recipe ingredients and cake shops that I really must visit and prompts to remind me when exhibitions are closing ... there is a sort of system because the left-hand pocket means it's important. Somewhere in the silted depths was a note that I'd scribbled a few weeks ago when I visited the British Library's A-Z of crime fiction and was intrigued when they described this book as the best fictional response to Hurricane Katrina. I'm not a huge fan of hard-core crime writing; I find the language of American street-cops almost impenetrable and this novel has a messy plot that was hard to keep track of. But none of that matters ... because James Lee Burke's haunting, angry description of the aftermath of Katrina is unforgettable, the filthy water, the bloated bodies, the helpless desperation of the poor. It felt all the more shocking to be reading it as a tornado devastated Oklahoma.