9 Novels About Gossip
Priyanka Champaneri, author of "The City of Good Death," recommends plots that center on the rumor mill
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There’s nothing like pulling up a chair and settling yourself in for a good gossip with a friend whom you can always rely on to spill the chai. And let’s not forget the pleasure of finding an empty seat at a café, occupying your hands with a beverage, and opening your ears to the full range of tattle that comes your way. In a past life when we could wander freely, you may have experienced the privilege of being in the right place at the right time, of hearing stories about people you didn’t know and would never meet, unadulterated opinions, and confessions that were thrilling even when they were mundane, simply because they were not yours.
My debut novel The City of Good Death opens with a dead body being pulled out of the Ganges, and the moment gives life to a strand of gossip that weaves itself into the city of Banaras, twisting with threads of other stories and tightening around the city, from the crowded steps of the ghats to the bustling market stalls. And while sometimes the gossip can be amusing and harmless, some of the tales passing from one mouth to another generate a momentum that obliterates the line between truth and fiction.
These days, I wonder if the limitations of texting, video chatting, and phone calls mean we’re also losing out on the joys of gossip in its most unadulterated and spontaneous form. Until it’s safe enough for us to once again become conversation voyeurs, here are nine books to quell your appetite for a good gossip.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
A chorus of women narrate the events of Brit Bennett’s debut novel, closely following the lives of three young members of their church’s congregation. Under this collective gaze, Nadia, Luke and Aubrey grow up—each carrying a personal burden that follows them into adulthood as they form attachments with each other, as well as deep secrets that threaten to crack open the carefully structured community that watches them. As the chorus notes,
“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around in our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.”
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
In classic Dickens fashion, this sprawling novel introduces us to characters up and down the Thames, from the spoiled Bella Wilfer, betrothed to a man she’s never met, to Bradley Headstone, a doomed schoolmaster who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam, the waterman’s daughter who helps her father troll the river for dead bodies. Throughout, members of the upper echelons—dubbed as the collective Society—compete to be the one to pounce on the juiciest story and be the final word of judgement, as they do with the huckster Veneering:
“…Society will discover that it always did despise Veneering, and distrust Veneering, and that when it went to Veneering’s to dinner it always had misgivings—though very secretly at the time, it would seem, and in a perfectly private and confidential manner.”
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez
After revealing the title’s death scene in the opening pages, Márquez proceeds to tell us each of the events leading up to and after the fateful moment Santiago Nasar is stabbed by the Vicario brothers to avenge their sister’s deflowering. Far from being a secret plot, the murder is openly discussed by the entire town, in a case of gossip taken far less seriously than it needed to be:
“The Vicario brothers had told their plans to more than a dozen people who had gone to buy milk, and these had spread the news everywhere before six o’clock.”
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
After a storm kills all the men on a Norwegian island in 1617, the women left behind have only themselves to rely on. While they grieve, some get to work manning the fishing boats, others take care of storing winter provisions—and a handful decide to busy their tongues with whispers that quickly ignite into something uglier. Taking inspiration from a real-life storm that preceded the 1620 witch trials, this book is a dark and brooding exploration into how women can shift roles, form bonds, and light the match that sets the whole thing ablaze. Gossip takes a dark and sinister turn, as one character observes:
“But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgement with a human tongue.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Whenever I find myself losing enthusiasm for reading or for writing, I pick up Betty Smith’s classic, and it never fails to instantly revive me. Covering Francie Nolan’s life from age 11 to 17, the novel shines when it indulges in its many side-story diversions that keep the neighborhood humming with a constant buzz of chatter—as when Francie’s mother has an encounter with a notorious killer:
“…the neighborhood forgot the murdering pervert. They remembered only that Katie Nolan had shot a man. And in speaking of her, they said she’s not one to get into a fight with. Why she’d shoot a person just as soon as look at them.”
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
I was on a writing residency when, after a few days of feeling uninspired, I picked up this classic Naipaul novel and instantly fell into the world of Mohun Biswas and his quest for a home and a life of his own in postcolonial Trinidad. This book sparkles with wit and humor and some of the most effervescent gossip I’ve had the pleasure of reading, from neighbors ribbing neighbors, family members side-eying their own, and brothers-in-law warning our title hero against the perils of siding with the wrong crowd:
“‘These Aryans say all sorts of things about women,’ Seth said. ‘And you know why? They want to lift them up to get on top of them. You know Rai was interfering with Nath’s daughter-in-law? So they asked him to leave. But a lot of other things left the house when he left.’”
December Stillness by Mary Downing Hahn
All my Mary Downing Hahn stans, put your hands up. From Doll in the Garden to Time for Andrew, I spent my grade-school years tearing through Hahn’s oeuvre—yet the one that remains with me years later is December Stillness, a frank exploration of a teen’s coming of age as she tries to befriend a traumatized Vietnam veteran. As Kelly McAllister tries to get inside Mr. Weems’s head, she must contend with an unsympathetic community more intent on labeling the man with increasing paranoia:
“‘He could be a psychopath,’ he said. ‘The kind who pulls out a gun and shoots everybody in sight.’ The woman gasped and clutched her books to her chest. ‘Good lord, I never thought of that.’”
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Doug Swieteck has just moved to upstate New York when word gets around that he’s the brother of a likely criminal, and he quickly finds himself trying to forge his own way in a place where everyone around him has already decided his character. Trudging against the tide of gossip isn’t easy—as Doug says,
“That’s how it is in a small town like stupid Marysville. All you have to do is spit on the sidewalk, and the whole town figures you’re the kind of guy who might commit homicide, and everyone in your family is likely just the same.”
But he keeps on, aided by a librarian who ignites an interest in Audubon’s Birds of America, in this wonderful story of growing up during the Vietnam War.
Palli Samaj: The Homecoming by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, translated by Prasenjit Mukherjee
Perhaps you’ve seen the Bollywood sob-fest that is Sarat Chandra’s Devdas, wherein the title hero turns to the bottle after societal pressure separates him from his true love. Similar themes emerge in the lesser known Palli Samaj, the tale of an engineer who returns to his home village hoping to coax it into modernity, only to fall in love with his widowed childhood sweetheart and invite the wrath of the community’s moral police. The book plunges the reader into the unforgiving world of village gossip from its opening pages:
“‘I have forgotten nothing, Benimadhab! Tarini had wanted to get his son married to my Rama…he got Bhairav Acharya to conduct some black magic on this poor girl so that within six months of her marriage she was widowed…. That scoundrel has died in as horrific a manner as he deserved….’”