Gossip of the Starlings (Algonquin Books, 2008) by Nina de Gramont is described as “a chilling portrait of an adolescent girl so thoroughly seduced by a peer that she willingly follows her to ruin.” Which is apt, but there’s more to the hauntingly beautiful, multilayered novel.
From the first page of Starlings I was hooked. And yes, it might have something to do with my love of books set in high school. I’m not sure what that’s about. When I was actually in high school I hated the then-popular teen series Sweet Valley High. But, as an adult, I find myself attracted to the edgy, hindsight-enhanced retellings of the high school experience captured in the likes of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. Starlings fits into this category, albeit a niche of a typification that seems to confuse readers as much as capture their imaginations.
Starlings is told in the voice of 16-year-old Catherine who has been sent to an all girl’s boarding school after being caught in bed with her boyfriend at a coed school. Catherine also has a supply of coke provided her by her best friend from childhood, which adds to the impression that the heroine is a bad girl. Skye, the attention-deprived daughter of a politician, is attracted to Catherine’s wild ways, though in fact Catherine’s own degenerate dabblings are mostly innocuous. She tends to show up when the drugs are be passed around—that sort of thing. In reality, she’s a good girl who loves her boyfriend but is aware that, once out of high school, they’ll go their separate ways. She competes in horse shows largely to please her distant mother. So, when Skye sets in motion a tail spin of erratic and dangerous behavior, Catherine is a never fully committed participant. She’s more of a dispassionate onlooker; at least that’s my take.
But even though Starlings is built on a sensational premise (praise for the book is rife with phrases like “tragic allure,” “reckless zest,” “terrifying and beautiful”), that’s not really the reason to read it. There’s something deeper at work here. The commentary on wealth versus poverty, the schism between the classes discernible even to a teen, the palpable sense of place, the illusion of inertia, of childhood lingering, of immortality and the fragile bonds of friendship. Somehow de Gramont manages to get into the mind of a 16 year-old and recreate—unfettered by adult judgment—just how easy it is to make friends and to led by daring and half-truths; the attempt to prolong childhood even as the realities, responsibilities and prejudices of adult life loom ever closer. There’s a real magic in being able to revisit that fleeting frame of mind.
Nina de Gramont reads at Malaprop’s on Saturday, June 14. The 7 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter