Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Love (page 1 of 3)

Two capsule YA reviews

I’ve rather a backlog of books to talk about, so here are capsule reviews of two strong YA novels I read during the past couple of months:

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

we-all-looked-up-9781471124556_hrThe world is going to end in ten chapters (weeks?) time when an asteroid called Ardor will crash into the Earth. If you’re a teenager, what are you going to do? There may be no future, so you’re going to live those last weeks to the utmost and attend a huge party at the end of it all – aren’t you?

Four senior High School students, Peter, Eliza, Andy and Anita – characterised as “the athlete, the outcast, the slacker and the over-achiever”, tell the interlocking story of these last weeks. Friendships will be made, broken and maybe mended; relationships, families and society too. What they all need though, is someone to love, to be with when the end comes.

It’s perhaps inevitable that there will be pairing up (after many false starts) and that the four protagonists are stereotypes. It takes the secondary characters – namely Andy’s mate Bobo and Peter’s younger sister Misery to gee things up on the action front. It does take  a long while to get going though and in the last quarter everything happens rather fast.  There are some nice touches though, especially near the start when Peter is talking to his teacher after class, and Mr. McArthur says:

The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world.

This was an interesting novel, that nearly carried it off – but not quite for me. (7.5/10)

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The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

The-rest-of-us-just-live--002A new book by Ness is always worth reading and this summer’s offering is a thoughtful novel that sits on the boundaries between paranormal fantasy and normal life for a small group of friends about to graduate from High School in a small town in Washington state.  The first chapter is prefaced thus:

Chapter The First, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate.

There are strange blue lights in the sky, the deer are acting like zombies, but then it gets straight down to normal life for Mikey, his sister Mel, best friend Jared and object of his affections Henna (who doesn’t realise and is attracted to new boy). Mikey’s family is dysfunctional – cheerful alcoholic father, mom running for state senator, and Mel a recovering anorexic. Mikey himself had counselling for anxiety – things are getting back to a sort of normal again…

And that, I think, was the problem. They could absolutely deal with Mel getting so sick. But I don’t think they could quite deal with her getting better. I did about eight hundred hours of anxious research on the internet and tried to tell them that almost ninety percent of anorexics do recover, but as time passed, they seemed to start resenting the healthy daughter just sitting there, the one that they’d sacrificed so much for, no longer needing the sacrifice, if she’d ever really needed it in the first place. (She did. We could have lost her. I could have lost her. And then what?)

It’s hard being normal for Mikey, in a world that’s so abnormal, where everyone seems to act like a superhero. Who are the real superheroes? This is the question at the heart of the novel – a slow burner – but thought-provoking in its gentle way. I enjoyed this a lot.  For a fantastic and much fuller review – do read Eric’s take on this book – here. (8.5/10)

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We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach – Simon & Schuster, March 2015. Review copy. Paperback, 384 pages. Buy at Amazon UK

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness – Walker Books, August 2015. Own copy. Hardback, 352 pages. Buy at Amazon UK

Something ‘that scares me’…

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

grasshopper-jungleOne of the few remaining squares on my summer(!) book bingo card has been crossed off with this novel. I find few ghost stories truly scary and own few horror novels of the type that would scare me. However, big creepy crawlies do make me squirm when confronted by them without glass in between us – at school we have several visits a year from various  bods with their boxes of huge beetles, stick insects and tarantulas – I keep resolutely behind the camera lens – those critters aren’t going to get on me!  So, come the day that we’re all forced to dine on insect protein, I will starve! The idea of the rise of insects is scary enough – but the thought that those insects could be dominated by six feet praying mantises which hatch from human hosts scares me sh*tless! This is what happens in this absolutely brilliant YA novel:

Robby Brees and I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.
Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back and forth ruts we cut through the field we named Grasshopper Jungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid.
Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, …

Meet Austin Szerba, of Polish descent, and his best friend Robby Brees. Robby is gay, Austin has a girlfriend, Shann, but he loves Robby too. He’s your typical confused teenager.

They attend Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy and the boys from the public school, Herbert Hoover High, always bully them and slag them off. During the opening sections, Austin and Robby have an encounter with the bullies and Robby ends up with a dripping, bloody nose.  He starts to spell out a message on the tarmac in drips of blood – GRANT WALLACH MURDERED ME, but only gets as far as the Wa.

Austin works for Shann’s Dad at the weekends; he runs a used goods warehouse where there is a locked room in which Mr McKeon keeps his treasures that are not for sale. Many came from the labs his late brother ran before he died. There are pickled mutant animals in jars, a preserved human head, in other words – a ‘real life horror show.’ There are also sealed glass globes that pulsate with light and particles – one is labelled ‘McKeon Industries 1969 Contained MI Plague Strain 412E’.

One night Austin and Robby sneek in through the skylight to take a look – but sadly this coincides with the Herbert Hoover bullies deciding to break in, in search of booze and cigarettes. Austin and Robby hide and will escape. However, one of the bullies will take the globe and drop it on the tarmac outside near the bins where a tramp often lurked:

The Contained MI Plague Strain 412E said hello to Robby Bree’s blood on the asphalt in Grasshopper Jungle.

And the end of the world began at about 2.00 a.m., around three and a half feet away from a discarded floral print sleeper sofa infested with pubic lice in Ealing, Iowa. One time, Travis Pope unfolded the sofa and fucked his wife, Eileen, on it. (p72)

The blood will activate the bugs who will infest the seven people who accidentally come into contact with it. They will hatch out of these bodies into six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things – mate and eat. Yuck!

The blurb tells us about the giant insects as does the opening paragraph and, for once, knowing vaguely what’s to come raises the reader’s level of anticipation hugely and thus the macabre enjoyment from the horrific circumstances that have come about. Will anyone get out alive? Will it be the end of mankind? Will insects really rule the world? I’m not telling!

Yes, I know that in the real world those globes would have been safely destroyed (fingers crossed); they would not have been allowed to be inherited and stored in a simply locked office. A suspension of belief is required – but that was simple to do. This was because Austin and Robby were such brilliant characters and so easy to love.

Underneath the crazy horror story is the coming of age one, of Austin searching for his identity. Whether he’s straight or gay he’s not quite so certain, not being sure whether his love for Robby is fraternal or not. As a lad on the cusp of manhood, he is obsessed by sex and has a strong urge to lose his virginity one way or another soon! In between, he tells us how his Polish grandfather arrived in New York and how he worked to fit into his new world and how proud Austin is of his heritage, that’s one thing he’s not confused about.

Austin is delightfully forthright in his narration, feeling compelled to set down all the relevant facts for the record, making connections between them. He is a young man that strives to understand the big picture and where everyone fits in history. He’s a little geeky, a reader and diary-writer, whereas Robby is simply the best friend you could ever wish for. They were such good company. This being their story, their immediate families don’t feature much, but Austin gives us the bare details – for the record:

I had a brother named Eric.
Eric was in Afghanistan, shooting at people and shit like that. …

Both our moms took little blue pills to make them feel not so anxious. My mom took them because of Eric, and Robby’s mom needed pills because when we were in the seventh grade, Robby’s dad left and didn’t come back. My dad was a history teacher at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, and my mom was a bookkeeper at the Hy-Vee, so we had a house and a dog, and shit like that. (p19)

This novel was entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure and told with great verve. Smith’s imagination runs riot but can go from gross-out to comedy to poignancy without faltering, making Grasshopper Jungle perfect for fans of Charlie Higson’s wonderful zombie novels for younger teens to graduate to. As an adult I adored it too. It has enough darkness and complexity to make a rewarding read for anyone from mid-teens upwards.  Grasshopper Jungle was actually Smith’s seventh novel, but the first to be published in the UK in 2014; I’ve ordered his latest from earlier this year The Alex Crow – can’t wait!  (10/10)

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Source: Own Copy.

Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle. Electric Monkey (Egmont teens) 2014, paperback, 400 pages.

Trapped in Genteel Poverty…

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Paying guestWhen we chose the second title for the Shiny Book Club, we wanted something totally different to the first (The Bees, which I reviewed here). It had to fit our criteria of being a Shiny New Book available in paperback in the UK. The obvious choice was Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, which came out in paperback in early summer.  (Note: It’ll be out in September in the US, so you can join in the Shiny Book Club discussion which will run until the next issue in October).  I’d bought the hardback last year, and very much enjoyed reading it, although holding it open (I don’t care to crack spines), made my wrist ache in bed!

A very quick synopsis of the basic plot. It’s 1922 and Frances Wray lives in genteel poverty with her mother in Champion Hill, the posh bit of Camberwell, South London. Her two brothers were killed in WWI. After that her father died, leaving them short of cash, they had to let their servants go, and Frances has taken on all aspects of running the house, being careful to keep up appearances for her mother’s sake. However, austerity is not enough, and reluctantly they decide to take in lodgers. Enter a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, who will take the upstairs rooms (excepting Frances’ bedroom). They will have to share the outside lav though.  After their visit to view, Frances is discussing them with her mother:

‘One good thing, I suppose, about their being so young: they’ve only his parents to compare us with. They won’t know that we really haven’t a clue what we’re doing. So long as we act the part of landladies with enough gusto, then landladies is what we will be.’
Her mother looked pained. ‘How baldly you put it! you might be Mrs Seaview, of Worthing.’
‘Well, there’s no shame in being a landlady; not these days. I for one aim to enjoy landladying.’
‘If you would only stop saying the word.’

And so it is that upper middle class Frances and her mother, become landladies to a working class couple on their way up. Quite a reversal.

Frances initially finds it difficult having a man in the house again, with his ‘jaunty whistling’ and ‘loud masculine sneezes’.  Len also has a habit of going out into the yard for a fag late in the evening, and stopping to talk to Frances on his way back through the kitchen.  He asks her about the garden and volunteers to help, telling her about his guvnor’s garden:

‘He even has cucumbers in a frame. Beauties, they are – this long!’ He held his hands apart, to show her. ‘Ever thought of cucumbers, Miss Wray?’
‘Well-‘
‘Growing them, I mean?’
Was there some sort of innuendo there? She could hardly believe that there was. But his gaze was lively, as it had been the night before, and , just as something about his manner then had discomposed her, so, now, she had the feeling that he was poking fun at her, perhaps attempting to make her blush.

Everyone settles down; Lilian puts her personal touch on their rooms with shawls and ornaments; Len goes out to work. Lilian gives Frances the rent money, and Mrs Wray gets hopeful about it:

‘I did just wonder, Frances, whether we mightn’t be able to afford a servant again.’

It is clear that there are tensions in Lil and Len’s relationship. This is obvious to Frances, who had begun to strike up a friendship with her lodger.  Then, one day, Frances lets out her big secret – she’d had a relationship with another woman, Chrissy, and was found out as the two of them had planned to set up home together. Far from scaring off Lilian, it switches something on in her and the pair become intimate, starting a secret affair.  Things soon come to a head though. It’s deeply stressful for all concerned in every which way. What happens next?  There are shocks and twists aplenty, but I’m not going to get more spoilery here. If you have read the book though, the discussion at Shiny Book Club does go into detail.

I thought that Waters nailed the situation of Frances and her mother in their enforced austerity perfectly. Mrs Wray was obviously perpetually mortified by it, and hated the idea that anyone might spot Frances cleaning the front doorstep or the like. Frances is hemmed in by it all, but throws herself into the chores to escape from her mother, except on those days she has trips into London to see her old flame Christina which is her only real relief from drudgery and the spinster life she has had to settle for.

Lilian at first appears flighty with Frances the dominant one, but as the novel progresses there is rather a role reversal. Frances falls so hard for Lilian it unnerves her, whereas Lilian gets strength from her large supportive family (who never find out all the secrets). Frances has been hardened by what happened before and regrets losing Christina, she thinks she’ll never find another lover and can’t believe it when Lilian reciprocates.  Their secret relationship is so intense and claustrophobic. At the beginning of the novel I really felt for Frances; I know she couldn’t help it, but the pressure she put on Lilian made me feel less for her and more for her partner in crime.

Topping just  over 560 pages in hardback, I did find this novel hard to put down, reading it in three long sessions. Once you get towards the closing stages, there is no way you’ll want to stop reading if you don’t have to, it’s so intense and gripping.  It feels very real in its post-WWI world (as The Night Watch did with WWII). It’s the 1920s, but there’s not a flapper in sight, this is suburban South London (and believe me it doesn’t change much!)

The Night Watch
remains my favourite Waters novel, but I preferred The Paying Guests to the slower-burning The Little Stranger (review here). The Paying Guests pulls you into its world right from the start. It is a complex morality tale that I enjoyed reading very much.

See also Harriet’s review and Simon’s at Vulpes Libris.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Virago, paperback, 608 pages.

"I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me"

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

The quest for Mr Right…

Last week you may have seen my post about ephemera (here) reporting my finding of some marginalia in an old book – well it made me want to read said book instantly – so I did!

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

pursuit of love 2Published in 1945, The Pursuit of Love is the companion piece to Mitford’s later novel Love in a Cold Climate (1949) (which I reviewed here previously). Both are narrated by Fanny, somewhat of an outsider to the central families of each novel, but otherwise they are standalone, so reading them in the wrong order doesn’t matter. I was delighted to find that I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love a lot more than the later book – it was funnier and more frothy.

The comedy is evident tight from page one, where Fanny describes her eccentric and irrascible Uncle Matthew’s prowess in WWI with an entrenching tool. Fanny always stays with the Radlett family at Christmas – and it can be a stressful time:

There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katie in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.

Fanny lives with her Aunt Emily, Sadie’s sister, her mother, known as the Bolter, having abandoned her when she was just one month old, and her father now being on his fifth wife! The story starts when Fanny and Linda, one of Sadie’s daughters and Fanny’s best friend, are both fourteen – at this age they are both ‘very much preoccupied with sin’, finding out about sex and looking forward to their coming out in the future.

Despite frequently falling foul of Uncle Matthew’s bad temper, the children have the most marvellous time with minimal education, loads of riding and outdoor pursuits, together with closeting themselves away in their hiding hole ‘Hons’ cupboard – where people they like are declared ‘Hons’ and those they don’t – Counter-Hons.

The girls reach their coming out ball, and no-one except Fanny could have imagined that Linda would fall for the first boy to look at her. Tony is the son of the Governor of the Bank of England, in his last year at Oxford, in the Bullingdon(!).  ‘Tony is Bottom to Linda, isn’t he?’ says Fanny sadly. The marriage isn’t to last, after nine years, leaving her daughter, Linda takes after her aunt and does a bolt – falling for Christian, a communist whom she will follow out to Perpingnan on the Franco-Spanish border, only to find out that she’s not what he wants at all.

It’s not until Linda escapes again ending up in Paris, that she meets the love of her life. Fabrice is older, extremely rich (he’s a Count), wordly, a serious and serial lover of many women. I now know, thanks to my mum’s marginalia, that the character of Fabrice was based upon Mitford’s lover Gaston Palewski to whom the novel is dedicated.  Fabrice is the great love of Linda’s life, only for them to be separated by WWII. Back in London, Linda and Fanny catch up:

Oh, don’t pity me. I’ve had eleven months of perfect and unalloyed happiness, very few people can say that, in the course of long long lives, I imagine.

It’s notable that these privileged young women seem totally immune to scandal – all this bolting from one love to the next would be completely frowned upon by the working classes. This freedom lets them be giddy and frothy and have so much fun. What is refreshing is that Linda, for all her excesses and lack of formal education, except for schoolgirl French and riding it seems, is a game girl in her pursuit of romance, and we can’t dislike her for it. Fanny our narrator may be terribly witty but, with her own happy marriage and children, she comes over as a bit staid in comparison.

As Fanny says though, this is Linda’s story – and it’s funny and sweet and touching – I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Pursuit of Loveby Nancy Mitford, Penguin paperback.
Love in a Cold Climate and other novels (Penguin Modern Classics)omnibus edition includes The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and The Blessing.

When your best friends don't get on …

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

gossip UK trade paperback cover

When the UK edition of Beth Gutcheon’s 2012 novel came out last year, I couldn’t resist the cover and oversized paperback format. However, that gorgeous cover is no more than a single snapshot in the lives of the three women it follows …

We start in 1960, when Loviah French is fifteen and enrolling at Miss Pratt’s – a boarding high school for girls in New York. Lovie’s family are from Maine, and she’s a country girl having a hard time at 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 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 Dinah is outside that set, but a keen observer of how it all works, 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 being an expert at an auction house.

It’s 1983 and Dinah and Avis are/have been married/divorced and had children, Lovie is still single, but does have a devoted lover – shame he can’t leave his wife. Anyway, Lovie sets up 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. …

… Avis and I were warming to our topic. She said, ‘I was used to having the city as my backyard. I missed the Met, I missed the symphony, I missed the art house cinema on weekends.’
‘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 roo, I think I did it.’
Avis look 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.

gossip-pb-300As a result, this novel does rather meander through the years, but the author’s development of the three main characters is such that we do want to follow their lives. Avis may be rich, but she does have difficulties at home; Dinah comes unstuck as a gossip columnist when she uncovers unethical goings on; and Loviah is there throught thick and thin – their loyal supporter. Poor Lovie, she gets used by everyone including her best friends. You can sense that although she loves her gentleman friend, she misses having a family of her own, so makes sure that she is the best Godmother her friends’ children could have.

Beth Gutcheon’s narrator, Lovie, is a wonderful character. She has an eye for detail, setting the scene as the years go by through the fashions and styles of the day.  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 – despite being rich, she proves that money isn’t everything.

The blurb suggests that this novel is ‘in the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s classic The Group, however I (still) haven’t read that yet.  The Group is set much earlier, during the 1930s, but I could compare this book with other New York stories – Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Gossip holds up well to the former, but I did like the Towles more.

Once we got past the schooldays, I really enjoyed reading this novel, absorbing myself in the lives of these three women.  Lovie dispenses her secrets gradually and the slowburn was worth staying with making this a satisfying read. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. Atlantic Books 2013, Trade paperback, 288 pages. Std paperback now available too.
Valley Of The Dolls (VMC) by Jacqueline Susann
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The Group (VMC) by Mary McCarthy

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