Nina de Gramont’s tale of girls at private school, Gossip of the Starlings, takes place in the ’80s, and manages to be true to that time without getting caught in the pitfalls of decade signifiers.
The book begins around the time that Reagan is running for re-election, and we get subtle reminders of the political feel of that time. But our narrator Catherine was just a young teenager in 1984, and even though she is telling this story as an adult, Gramont doesn’t allow her to get bogged down in the politics of the time. While the looming election assists in establishing a mood for the world of the book, it is unnecessary to the movement of the story.
The story itself involves Catherine’s sudden friendship with fellow private schooler Skye Butterfield. Skye is a little more plugged into the time’s politics — her dad is senator Douglas Butterfield, a JFK-type figure from Massachusetts — but works even harder to set herself outside of them. She occasionally stages outlandish protests against her father’s actions, but they come across less like activism and more like tantrums.
When we meet Catherine and Skye, they are bonding over a stash of cocaine in Catherine’s dorm room. This becomes a regular scene in the book. Catherine and Skye and Catherine’s friends from home are often snorting cocaine or eating mushrooms or drinking their parents’ liquor. They all — excluding Catherine’ boyfriend Jean Paul — come from varying degrees of privilege, and their partying rings hollow to the reader and, eventually, to the characters themselves.
The most interesting move in the book is the switch between Catherine and Skye. In the beginning, we see Catherine as corrupter. Though Skye is clearly not all prim and proper — at one point, Catherine is alarmed at the size of Skye’s self-inflicted gash when they decide to make a pact in blood — but her naive delight in the cocaine makes her seem relatively unworldly compared to Catherine.
But this quickly changes. Skye starts to challenge Catherine constantly, to get more drugs, to try bigger types of rebellion. And this begins to take its toll on Catherine. Her friends from home, mistrusting of Skye from the beginning, distance themselves.
Catherine’s horse riding career, one in which she’s always come close to success before falling short, is eventually undone by Skye. And Jean Paul sees Skye as a manifestation of the growing distance between he and Catherine. They will go to different colleges, he knows, and their young love will wither.
And, in the end, Catherine is the naive one. She doesn’t see Skye’s small betrayals coming. She sees the hurt Skye’s impetuous ways cause, but doesn’t remove herself from them. And even now, talking as an adult, the reader can feel her still trying to hash it out. Sometimes, she seems to be trying to convince her younger self of something, other times she is merely coming to grips.
But, for all the personal turmoil, there is very little in the way of tension or urgency in Gossip of the Starlings. That the rebellions we see are typical says something necessary about the characters, but it also keeps us as readers from ever being surprised. And the characters themselves, particularly the parents, seem so nonplussed by all that happens that it makes it all the harder for it to affect us.
Catherine’s narrative, which is always sound and occasionally beautiful, does pick up some of the slack. But it is a difficult task to make the plight of the rich something the ‘everyperson’ should care about — particularly in the wake of a flood of television that tries that very thing and fails miserably — and while Gramont’s attempt is a solid one, it seems to take for granted that this is an interesting story.
There is very little in the way of twists or character dilemmas that we don’t see coming, and while there isn’t anything in the book that would turn the reader off, at some point we become aware that, to continue this story, we have to keep turning the pages. Catherine and Skye’s story isn’t always compelling enough to make that decision for us.