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Posted: Tuesday, Jul. 01, 2008

Boarding school ‘Gossip' is worth the attention

Published in: Pam Kelley

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Boarding schools are such fertile settings for novels.

With parents conveniently out of the picture, teenage characters are free to make their own rules. That often leads to trouble – and a good tale.

So it is with the characters in Nina de Gramont's debut novel, “Gossip of the Starlings,” ($22.95, Algonquin).

Set in the fictional Esther Percy School for Girls, this coming-of-age story opens with students Catherine Morrow and new best friend Skye Butterfield snorting lines of cocaine from the top of a toaster oven in Catherine's room. The chapter concludes with a chilling revelation: Skye will be dead before the story's end.

De Gramont, author of the award-winning “Of Cats and Men” short-story collection, moved from Massachusetts in 2003 and now teaches in UNC Wilmington's creative writing program.

She got the idea for this story from an actual 1984 drug bust involving students from prestigious prep schools who tried to smuggle cocaine from Venezuela.

At the time, de Gramont attended a Vermont boarding school, and in Northeastern prep school circles, she says, the drug bust was huge. “It seemed so big, so outlaw.”

Ever since, the story held a fascination for her. It was a strange time in America – a permissive period that grew out of the '60s, before AIDS chastened behavior. “You had lots of green lights, and red lights were still on the horizon.”

In that setting, de Gramont gives us Skye, daughter of “handsomer-than-a-Kennedy-and-just-as-liberal” Sen. Douglas Butterfield:

“In the fall of 1984 there were three teenage girls whose names we all recognized. Phoebe Cates, who skipped – with a smiling mouthful of braces – through our outgrown subscriptions to “Seventeen.” Brooke Shields, who had disrobed on film at the exact moment our own bodies became a desperate source of uneasiness. And – in Massachusetts, at least – there was Skye Butterfield: who had appeared on campaign podiums since her head barely grazed her father's elbow.”

Skye is beautiful and talented, but when her father's actions disappoint her, this former good girl decides to act out, to punish him.

Many prep school novels are written from an outsider's perspective. De Gramont's characters are insiders who “have that invincibility that wealth grants,” that “net of privilege” that catches them when they fall.

De Gramont's prose, graceful and visual, stays with the reader. She's a writer to watch – one of North Carolina's rising literary stars.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271, pkelley@charlotteobserver.com.

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