starlingsI read Nina de Gramont’s Gossip of the Starlings on Sunday in a leisurely four or five hours, and strongly recommend it as a satisfying, lazy weekend read.  The comparisons to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep are inevitable, since Prep shot to glory as such an eponymous pinnacle of prep school novels in 2005, but I enjoyed Starlings a great deal more.   I haven’t read Prep since it first came out and, indeed, recall reading it in almost one sitting, but have never revisited it due to my lingering frustration at central character Lee’s extreme passiveness and unwillingness to participate in her own life.  That said, it was a very well-written and clearly memorable novel, and Sittenfeld’s talent is not in question.

De Gramont’s Gossip of the Starlings takes place in 1980s northeastern prep school and aside from a few minor details (such as the school’s permissiveness with regard to students hitchhiking to town and the political structure of the Reagan years), could easily take place in any decade since.  The story concerns Catherine Morrow’s transfer to an elite girls’ school after her parents pull her out of her co-ed prep school when she is caught in bed with her boyfriend, John Paul.  Banished to Esther Percy School, Catherine is sought out for friendship by the luminous, famous Skye Butterfield, daughter of a popular Democratic senator.  Skye has been expelled from her own previous schools on account of her protest against a plutonium manufacturing site and because she was caught writing papers for a scholarship student.

But Skye’s seeming wholesomeness is begging for corruption, and she seeks out Catherine as a minister.  Starting from the first chapter, when Catherine and Skye snort cocaine in Catherine’s room and swear to tell each other about the afterlife when one of them dies first, the novel is imbued with a sense of dread countered by the timeless teenage conceit of immortality.  It reminded me, pleasantly, of Donn Tartt’s The Secret History, one of my favorite books, and captures a similar aura of freewheeling doom and contradictory, simultaneous adolescent certainty that this sparkling era will remain forever untouched.   

I would additionally note that if you were ever a horse girl, you’ll appreciate de Gramont’s descriptions of Catherine’s competitive equestrianism (and if you were never horsey, it will not bore you).  There are lovely metaphors to be found in horseback riding – Catherine’s struggle for control over a powerful, unwilling beast, the ultimately broken spirit of a bridled horse, and the connection and solace she seeks in the animal (I won’t spell them out any further so as not to turn you off).

The novel put me beautifully in mind of my own adolescence, with stark honesty.  De Gramont does well detailing the complex interactions of Catherine’s friends, the reasons for and consequences of their drug usage, and the essential, anguished frustration of the teenage psyche.  It’s a novel of consequences, and is about the unwillingness to accept those consequences, however foreseen.   This is not a depressing book, but it is perhaps a wistful and very human book.  De Gramont has an intelligent but not taxing way with language that sped me easily through, and I would definitely suggest Gossip of the Starlings for your own lazy Sunday.