Privileged kids making bad choices

When F. Scott Fitzgerald published "This Side of Paradise" -- his scandalous novel about the heedless, amoral children of the wealthy -- in 1919, he created news that stayed news. Since the appearance of that book and its more famous successor, "The Great Gatsby," America's hunger to read about the young, privileged and decadent has remained sharp.

Mary McCarthy's "The Group" charted the coolly vindictive habits of Vassar undergraduates with unforgettable feline malice, and two generations later Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero" depicted the collapse of the nation's elite youth into drugs, anomie, and despair. Two years ago Curtis Sittenfeld's "Prep" -- a breezy portrait of prep-school life so saturated in consumerist detail that several readers insisted it was not fiction at all -- was named one of the year's best books in fiction by The New York Times.

Into this arena of avid curiosity now comes Nina de Gramont's new novel, "Gossip of the Starlings." Set in the not-quite-exclusive Esther Percy School for Girls in 1984, the book centers on Catherine Morrow, whose primary interests are John Paul, her handsome boyfriend enrolled at nearby Waverly; Pippin, the horse with whom she hopes to go to Nationals; and her not-infrequent cocaine habit. Her interests are swiftly rearranged when she learns that one of her fellow students is the beautiful and notorious Skye Butterfield, liberal miscreant and daughter of a senator. Expelled from Devon after writing papers for another student on a football scholarship, subsequently arrested for protesting at a manufacturing site that turned out plutonium triggers, Skye is a celebrity. "Get the details," Catherine's friend Susannah instructs. "Find out everything about that scholarship kid, and what really happened."

"OK," Catherine says, but she does not. Skye is blasting forward into new indiscretions and is not interested in talking about old business. If anything, Skye wants to shed her persona as an earnest do-gooder. She's ready to find out about trouble. The guide she chooses is Catherine.

Flattered, Catherine doesn't let herself think for long about the amount of cocaine her new friend is urging they use or the marijuana Skye brazenly smokes on campus. Catherine watches with only some unease as Skye flirts with one of their teachers and ignores the warnings of her old friend Susannah, who claims that Skye is dangerous. Susannah, Catherine thinks, is jealous. But Susannah remains a good friend: She provides their cocaine.

Skye provides her own enticements, beginning when she invites Catherine and her friends to stay at the Butterfield Cape Cod compound for a weekend. The teenagers have the run of the palatial house, especially after Skye frighteningly disappears while kayaking with Susannah's boyfriend. She materializes the next day, claiming not to have heard their panicked cries when the ocean seemed to have taken her. Perhaps Skye had sex with Susannah's boyfriend; perhaps she was hiding and watching while the rest of the group drank Senator Butterfield's liquor and snorted cocaine off a mirror they took down from the living room wall; details got blurry. Uneasy, not sure what she knows and what she doesn't, Catherine thinks about Skye: "The light beneath her skin seemed to crawl and swirl, searching for some manner of destructive escape, and I wanted to retreat before whatever tragedy befell her could be blamed on me."

Distracted by her friend's glamour, Catherine barely notices the unraveling of her own life, thread by thread. Only when Skye heedlessly causes an accident that breaks Catherine's arm and ends her dream of winning the Nationals does a rift divide the girls. Catherine begins to see with alarm more troublesome quirks in Skye's behavior -- a suddenly acquired credit card that Skye tries to hide, the merciless destruction of the English teacher whom Skye has led on and on. And the drugs, always the drugs, which create such a pleasing distraction while Skye steals from, harms and distorts the lives around her.

There is something queasy-making about this portrait of privilege -- or, in Catherine's case, near-privilege -- held so carelessly by the children of the well-to-do. "Gossip of the Starlings" is in part a cautionary tale; these characters are not held up for our admiration. Skye, in particular, is a troubling character, able to turn her apparently generous impulses to viciousness, and then back to kindness again with disturbing amoral ease. In the end, it is not her moments of warmth that are most memorable, or her gleefully destructive actions. Skye stays in the reader's memory because, like many privileged characters in fiction, she pays no price for her actions. That price is paid, always, by someone else.

"Gossip of the Starlings" is about reckonings and the consequences of actions. For Catherine and her friends, those consequences are long in arriving, but when they come, they are absolute. The book does not flinch from showing the loss that comes from carelessness, or the deceit inherent in celebrity. It portrays a broken culture, and one grimly recognizable.