The New York Times Book Review
A Gate at the Stairsby Lorrie Moore
Lyrical, devastatingly funny, wise, and beguiling, A Gate at the Stairs is Lorrie Moore’s most ambitious book to date.
The long-awaited new novel from one of the most heralded writers of the past thirty years, A Gate at the Stairs is a book of stunning power.
Set just after the events of September 2001, it is a story about Tassie/b>/b>… See more details below
Lyrical, devastatingly funny, wise, and beguiling, A Gate at the Stairs is Lorrie Moore’s most ambitious book to date.
The long-awaited new novel from one of the most heralded writers of the past thirty years, A Gate at the Stairs is a book of stunning power.
Set just after the events of September 2001, it is a story about Tassie Keltjin, a twenty-year-old making her way in a new world and coming of age. Tassie is a “smile-less” girl from the plains of the mid-west. She has come to a university town, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, and Simone de Beauvoir. In between semesters, she takes a part-time job as a nanny for a family that seems mysterious and glamorous to her. Though her liking for children tends to dwindle into boredom, Tassie begins to care for, and protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own. As the year unfolds, she is drawn even deeper into the world of the child and her hovering parents, and her own life back home becomes alien to her. As life reveals itself dramatically and shockingly, Tassie finds herself forever changed — less the person she once was, and more and more the stranger she feels herself to be.
Under the novel’s languid surface, Moore’s deft and lyrical writing skillfully illustrates the heart of racism, the shock of war, and the carelessness perpetrated against others in the name of love. It is the novel for our time.
From the Hardcover edition.
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It's interesting to consider the impact of Moore's own work by this metric, and not only because A Gate at the Stairs is narrated by a 20-year-old. Since the publication of her first collection, Self-Help, in 1985, so many readers have identified with Moore's witty, cynical, and yearning failed-relationship stories at a similarly impressionable stage that her writing has become as formative an influence on American fiction as her hero John Updike's was in an earlier era.
Self-Help, the young depressive's answer to the dating manual, was my first exposure to Moore. In this debut story collection, which Knopf snapped up when the author was just 26, the characters cheat or are cheated on; they are phoned by married lovers at pointless office jobs; they "make attempts at less restrictive arrangements," only to "watch them sputter and deflate like balloons." Reading the book back in college, my friends and I felt as if someone had distilled the essence of our own bad decisions and aimlessness into a terrible and irrefutable prediction that we would spend the rest of our days making the same mistakes we already had, only more so. Moore's instructional second-person narration and knowing wisecracks leant her prose an aura of authority. Relationships are futile and hazardous no matter which way you go about them, Self-Help seemed to say, but you're not going to give them up, so you may as well just gird yourself with dread, and soldier on. Subsequent works, which I read in quick succession, induced to a lesser degree the same feeling of witnessing my own future car wreck.
When Moore's Birds of America appeared in 1998, however, I was thrown. Although precisely observed and often moving, the stories lacked the galvanizing concision of her earlier fiction. The humor was more acutely sardonic than ever, but -- especially in "People like That Are the Only People Here," an astonishing story set in a children's cancer ward -- slowed by a new kind of bitterness and a wrenching, very adult pain that I couldn't fully access and wasn't sure I wanted to.
Before reading this long-awaited novel, though, I went back through Moore's body of work and was amazed to discover that many of the stories in Self-Help now seem tinny and monotonous, and some actually grate. In part this is due to their familiarity; returning to the characters and their predicatments after so many years is like beaming directly into to the mind of my 20-year-old self (The fact that lesser imitators have drained the second person of freshness doesn't help.) By contrast, Birds of America, Like Life, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? revealed themselves as stronger works -- deeper and more cohesive in their particular blend of anger, hopelessness, and nostalgia.
A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's first book in 11 years, is set in a midwestern university community in the months following 9/11. While it engages with familiar themes -- deception, boredom, and failure in love; the laziness of youth; the cluelessness of parents -- it also represents a significant departure for Moore, both in scope and tone, from what has preceded it. The novel is far more overtly political than her prior fiction, contemplating racism, fundamentalism, war, and liberal hypocrisy.
In the opening pages, Tassie, a college student and small-town farmer's daughter, revels in the electrifying uselessness of undergraduate study: "My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad... stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James' masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie."
Tassie has already handed in her final papers and plans to spend winter break looking for work. Although she interviews for nanny positions with one "fortyish pregnant woman after another," there are no call-backs until she meets with Sarah, a restaurateur who coincidentally buys potatoes from Tassie's father. Tassie is surprised to hear her dad's rarified produce spoken of approvingly; back home, the locals disdain his small operation, viewing him as a "hobbyist," a "vaguely contemptuous character, very out-of-town," even more ridiculous than the despised ginseng growers.
Sarah and her husband are trying to adopt, and she calls that very night to offer Tassie a job. Moore immediately sets up the tensions and affinities between Tassie and her new boss. "[E]ven once she had a baby," Tassie observes, Sarah "would never be able to shake the Auntie Mame quality from her mothering. There were worse things, I supposed." The bumper stickers on the back of her car -- "PERHAPS YOU WOULD DRIVE BETTER WITH THAT CELL PHONE SHOVED UP YOUR ASS" and "IF GOD SPEAKS THROUGH BURNING BUSHES, LET'S BURN BUSH AND LISTEN TO WHAT GOD SAYS." -- add pointed confirmation.
The first prospective adoptee doesn't work out, but Sarah eventually manages to get her hands on a toddler, a beautiful, friendly mixed-race child. She renames the little girl Mary-Emma (but calls her Emmie), bakes picture books from the library "to get rid of the germs," and, to supplement the baby food, arranges to have risotto Fed-Exed home from her restaurant. After a teenager shouts the n-word at Emmie from his speeding car, Sarah starts a Wednesday-night support group for parents of mixed-race children. Tassie overhears their talks from her perch up in the nursery with the kids:
"Racial blindness is a white idea." This would be Sarah.
"How dare we think of ourselves as a social experiment?"
"How dare we not?"
"I'm in despair."
"Despair is mistaking a small world for a large one and a large one for a small....
The opinions downstairs were put forth with such emphasis and confidence, it all sounded like an orchestra made up entirely of percussion....
Every time a meeting convenes, the dialogue continues for pages, but the participants are barely, if at all, distinguished.
At its best, Moore's uncanny dexterity for dipping into the flow of language -- for detaching conversations from characters' back-stories and evoking the realities of how people talk to one another -- fosters a sense of universality. After all, people really do misspeak, antagonize, and confuse. They air anxieties and grievances they had meant to suppress and then try to dispel the resulting awkwardness with bad jokes. Yet the profusion of clever repartee in fiction can erode the reader's sense of the characters as individual people worth investing in. Tassie is strangely jaded and politically informed for a girl with her background, and her rendition of events occasionally suffers from a satirical quality that threatens to undermine the realism and emotional resonance of the book.
When eventually it becomes clear that the adoption is in jeopardy, the plot takes on an urgency reminiscent of a good crime novel. Mysteries pile up: why is Sarah suddenly so dispassionate; who calls the house all day and hangs up; is Tassie's boyfriend somehow related to the person who drives by at strange times, music blaring? The hollowness of Sarah's liberalism is expertly exposed, and Moore's fusion of heartbreak and satire reaches alchemical perfection as the now-bourgie Emmie cries "Ciao, Mama! Ciao, Mama!" from the window of a departing car.
While Tassie's relationships with Sarah and Emmie are genuine and complex, forming the heart of A Gate at the Stairs, the novel's many subplots engage less fully and often fail to convince. There is the gorgeous, lying boyfriend whose zealotry, racism, and exit don't feel supported by what has come before. There is the absent roommate, who is more remarkable missing than when she finally turns up. And there are Tassie's parents and brother, who seem, until tragedy wrenches them into focus toward the book's end, to exist largely as background..
For all the evidence supporting Moore's claims about the shape of our passions at 20, this latest book belies her argument that they become fixed. While deception in love often serves as her early works' raison d'etre, here it detracts. Tassie's lover is not sufficiently particularized to hold our attention as a character, and her feelings toward him are too ill-defined for us to empathize with her grief. Through the peripheral story lines and the one-liners, it's the fate of Emmie that resonates. A Gate at the Stairs is, fundamentally, about the lies people -- especially well-meaning ones -- tell themselves. --Maud Newton
Maud Newton's writing has appeared in numerous publications. Her blog is at maudnewton.com.
“An indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11…. Moore has written her most powerful book yet.” —The New York Times
“A miracle of lyric force, beautiful and beautifully constructed, with a comic touch that transforms itself to a kind of harrowing precision.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A Gate at the Stairs has the power to make you laugh and cry, sometimes almost simultaneously.” —The Miami Herald
“Lorrie Moore’s writing is everything that life is, funny and heart-breaking—and rich.” —The Denver Post
“Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Fifty years from now, it may well turn out that the work of very few American writers has as much to say about what it means to be alive in our time as that of Lorrie Moore.” —Harper’s Magazine
“Moore tells a deeply troubling story about race and class and gender in post-9/11 America. And she does it with characteristic wit and intelligence, without letting a soul off the hook. . . . Dazzling.” —The Oregonian
“This novel explores, with enormous emotional precision, the limitations and insufficiencies of love, and the loneliness that haunts even the most doting of families. . . . Moore gives us stark, melancholy glimpses into her characters’ hearts.” —The New York Times
“Spectacular. . . . Gate is a gift.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Moore . . . has created a delightful protagonist and narrator—funny, mouthy, good-hearted and deliciously awkward. . . . What rings true over and over is Tassie’s—and of course, Moore’s—choice of humor as body armor against terrors both new and old.” —The Plain Dealer
“Lyrical, funny, disturbing, and at times brilliantly insightful. . . . There’s not much . . . predictable about this electric-bass-playing, Sylvia-Plath-spouting, motor-scooter-driving, pun-making college kid. . . . Uncommonly rich in pithy observations, startling realizations and zany nuggets of satire.” —The Seattle Times
“Beautiful. . . . Wonderfully described and worthy of savoring. . . Bright and lovely.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Tassie’s awakening is nothing short of brilliant. . . . This is not merely a coming-of-age novel, but a world coming to grips with a new, uneasy existence.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“The story’s apparent modesty and ambling pace are deceptive, a cover for profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult life. . . . Strange and moving.” —The Washington Post Book World
“A stunning examination of grief—the learning of it, the insidious ways in which it seeps into everything, eating away at people and relationships, lingering until sometimes forgiveness becomes impossible.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Moore balances pathos and humor, poetry and puns, often on the seesaw of the same sentence. . . . A Gate at the Stairs is vintage Lorrie Moore.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Moore’s penetrating and singular voice as a writer is one I could listen to for years and years.”—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air, NPR
“Tassie is achingly real and, thanks to Moore’s nimble prose, an unbeatable guide through the thicket of early adulthood.” —People
“Moore’s acute intelligence and sheer love of wordplay make her challenging and interesting to read. She’s also funny as hell. A Gate at the Stairs is not a novel anyone will want to put down. . . . This is Greek tragedy cloaked in a coming-of-age cape.” —Houston Chronicle
“Lorrie Moore inspires fierce loyalty, for good reason. She’s the sheriff of a wild and lonely territory, in which empathetic people fight despair with charming words.” —Newsday
“A fiction writer with as fine a bead on contemporary life and relationships and absurdity as anyone writing today. . . . Startling, painful, funny.” —Elle
“Moore is by turns ironic and tragic in her portrayal of a woman struggling to find herself in a troubled new century.” —More
“Incisively funny. . . .Witty and endearing. . . . There are some books that you don’t so much want to review as to hand out copies to all your reading friends. This is one of those.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Lorrie Moore has a unique gift. She can be screamingly funny—and in the very next paragraph, able to convey terrible grief. . . . Pitch-perfect. . . . Dazzling.” —USA Today
“In Tassie Keltjin . . . Moore has created an indelible character who leaves the reader with a startling and poignant story.” —The Kansas City Star
“Brims with the sort of humor and piquant social observations that first brought [Moore] fame as a short-story writer.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Lovely and amusing.” —Time Out New York
“On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately (well, the dog was between us, but she doesn’t read much, and none of what I recommend).” —Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times Book Review
“A powerful, compassionate novel, both funny and tragic, and always beautifully told.” —Newsweek
“Readers of contemporary fiction who don’t love Lorrie Moore just haven’t read her. . . . A rich, expansive and singularly quirky feast.” —Salt Lake Tribune
“A remarkable meditation of a novel. . . . Moore is a master of the defining detail, and she shines a revealing spotlight on Tassie and the kaleidoscope of characters surrounding her.” —The Denver Post
“Wise, rueful, luminous, intoxicating. . . . A startlingly moving, gorgeously written book.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Lays bare the fissures in American society as one young woman is forced to confront not just the changes in the world around her, but in herself.” —New York Post
“The crafted dazzle of Moore’s writing stands center stage. . . . Lovers of language will find much to enjoy here.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Tassie’s wit and bruisable heart makes this novel refreshingly real.” —Good Housekeeping
“Breathtaking. . . . You’ll want to have some tissues ready—and we’re not even getting to half of it. But the saddest part will be when it’s over.” —Daily Candy
“Reverberates with a quiet, lingering power that leaves the reader pondering the randomness of life and death, and the wisdom and futility of love.” —Sacramento Book Review
“Comic, moving, and ultimately harrowing. . . . Its wonderful, heartbreaking conclusion reminds us that no matter how we suffer, we still can reach a peculiarly human state of grace.” —The Miami Herald
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Read an Excerpt
The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people’s yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job. I was a student and needed babysitting work, and so I would walk from interview to interview in these attractive but wintry neighborhoods, the eerie multitudes of robins pecking at the frozen ground, dun-gray and stricken—though what bird in the best of circumstances does not look a little stricken—until at last, late in my search, at the end of a week, startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression—of politeness, a false promise of delicacy—for in fact I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line.
I was looking in December for work that would begin at the start of the January term. I’d finished my exams and was answering ads from the student job board, ones for “childcare provider.” I liked children—I did!—or rather, I liked them OK. They were sometimes interesting. I admired their stamina and candor. And I was good with them in that I could make funny faces at the babies and with the older children teach them card tricks and speak in the theatrically sarcastic tones that disarmed and enthralled them. But I was not especially skilled at minding children for long spells; I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind grew peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.
I had come from Dellacrosse Central, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I’d read of in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced only me.
In the corridors students argued over Bach, Beck, Balkanization, bacterial warfare. Kids said things to me like “You’re from the country. Is it true that if you eat a bear’s liver you’ll die?” They asked, “Ever know someone who did you-know-what with a cow?” Or “Is it an actual fact that pigs won’t eat bananas?” What I did know was that a goat will not really consume a tin can: a goat just liked to lick the paste on the label. But no one ever asked me that.
From our perspective that semester, the events of September—we did not yet call them 9/11—seemed both near and far. Marching poli-sci majors chanted on the quads and the pedestrian malls, “The chickens have come home to roost! The chickens have come home to roost!” When I could contemplate them at all—the chickens, the roosting—it was as if in a craning crowd, through glass, the way I knew (from Art History) people stared at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre: La Gioconda! its very name like a snake, its sly, tight smile encased at a distance but studied for portentous flickers. It was, like September itself, a cat’s mouth full of canaries. My roommate, Murph—a nose-pierced, hinky-toothed blonde from Dubuque, who used black soap and black dental floss and whose quick opinions were impressively harsh (she pronounced Dubuque “Du-ba-cue”) and who once terrified her English teachers by saying the character she admired most in all of literature was Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood—had met her boyfriend on September tenth and when she woke up at his place, she’d phoned me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring. “I know, I know,” she said, her voice shrugging into the phone. “It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done.”
I raised my voice to a mock shout. “You sick slut! People were killed. All you think about is your own pleasure.” Then we fell into a kind of hysteria—frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
“Well,” I sighed, realizing I might not be seeing her all that much from then on in, “I hope there’s just hanky—no panky.”
“Nah,” she said. “With panky there’s always tears, and it ruins the hanky.” I would miss her.
Though the movie theaters closed for two nights, and for a week even our yoga teacher put up an American flag and sat in front of it, in a lotus position, eyes closed, saying, “Let us now breathe deeply in honor of our great country” (I looked around frantically, never getting the breathing right), mostly our conversations slid back shockingly, resiliently, to other topics: backup singers for Aretha Franklin, or which Korean-owned restaurant had the best Chinese food. Before I’d come to Troy, I had never had Chinese food. But now, two blocks from my apartment, next to a shoe repair shop, was a place called the Peking Café where I went as often as I could for the Buddha’s Delight. At the cash register small boxes of broken fortune cookies were sold at discount. “Only cookie broken,” promised the sign, “not fortune.” I vowed to buy a box one day to see what guidance—obscure or mystical or mercenary but Confucian!—might be had in bulk. Meanwhile, I collected them singly, one per every cookie that came at the end atop my check, briskly, efficiently, before I’d even finished eating. Perhaps I ate too slowly. I’d grown up on Friday fish fries and green beans in butter (for years, my mother had told me, mar- garine, considered a foreign food, could be purchased only across state lines, at “oleo” stands hastily erected along the highway—park here for parkay read the signs—just past the Illinois governor’s welcome billboard, farmers muttering that only Jews bought there). And so now these odd Chinese vegetables—fungal and gnomic in their brown sauce—had the power for me of an adventure or a rite, a statement to be savored. Back in Dellacrosse the dining was divided into “Casual,” which meant you ate it standing up or took it away, and the high end, which was called “Sit-Down Dining.” At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were gemütlichkeit and paneled, decorated with framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read “Guten Morgen.” Sauces were called “gravy.” And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak “cooked to your likeness.” On Fridays there were fish fries or boils for which they served “lawyers” (burbot or eelpout), so-called because their hearts were in their butts. (They were fished from the local lake where all the picnic spots had trash cans that read no fish guts.) On Sundays there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad and something called “Grandma Jell-O,” but “prime rib with au jus,” a precise knowledge of French—or English or even food coloring—not being the restaurant’s strong point. A la carte meant soup or salad; dinner meant soup and salad. The Roquefort on the salad was called by the waitstaff “Rockford dressing.” The house wine—red, white, or pink—all bore the requisite bouquet of rose, soap, and graphite, a whiff of hay, a hint of hooterville, though the menu remained mute about all this, sticking to straightforward declarations of hue. Light ale and dunkel were served. For dessert there was usually a gluckschmerz pie, with the fluffy look and heft of a small snowbank. After any meal, sleepiness ensued.
Now, however, away and on my own, seduced and salted by brown sauce, I felt myself thinning and alive. The Asian owners let me linger over my books and stay as long as I wanted to: “Take your tie! No lush!” they said kindly as they sprayed the neighboring tables with disinfectant. I ate mango and papaya and nudged the stringy parts out of my teeth with a cinnamon toothpick. I had one elegantly folded cookie—a short paper nerve baked in an ear. I had a handleless cup of hot, stale tea, poured and reheated from a pail stored in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator.
I would tug the paper slip from the stiff clutches of the cookie and save it for a bookmark. All my books had fortunes protruding like tiny tails from their pages. You are the crispy noodle in the salad of life. You are the master of your own destiny. Murph had always added the phrase “in bed” to any fortune cookie fortune, so in my mind I read them that way, too: You are the master of your own destiny. In bed. Well, that was true. Debt is a seductive liar. In bed. Or the less-well-translated Your fate will blossom like a bloom.
Or the sly, wise guy: A refreshing change is in your future.
Sometimes, as a better joke, I added though NOT in bed.
You will soon make money. Or: Wealth is a wise woman’s man.
Though NOT in bed.
And so I needed a job. I had donated my plasma several times for cash, but the last time I had tried the clinic had turned me away, saying my plasma was cloudy from my having eaten cheese the night before. Cloudy Plasma! I would be the bass guitarist! It was so hard not to eat cheese! Even the whipped and spreadable kind we derisively called “cram cheese” (because it could be used for sealing windows and caulking tile) had a certain soothing allure. I looked daily at the employment listings. Childcare was in demand: I turned in my final papers and answered the ads.
One forty-ish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions. “What would you do if our little baby started crying and wouldn’t stop?” “Are you available evenings?” “What do you think of as a useful educational activity for a small child?” I had no idea. I had never seen so many pregnant women in such a short period of time—five in all. It alarmed me. They did not look radiant. They looked reddened with high blood pressure and frightened. “I would put him in a stroller and take him for a walk,” I said. I knew my own mother had never asked such questions of anyone. “Dolly,” she said to me once, “as long as the place was moderately fire resistant, I’d deposit you anywhere.”
“Moderately?” I queried. She rarely called me by my name, Tassie. She called me Doll, Dolly, Dollylah, or Tassalah.
“I wasn’t going to worry and interfere with you.” She was the only Jewish woman I’d ever known who felt like that. But she was a Jewish woman married to a Lutheran farmer named Bo and perhaps because of that had the same indifferent reserve the mothers of my friends had. Halfway through my childhood I came to guess that she was practically blind as well. It was the only explanation for the thick glasses she failed often even to find. Or for the kaleidoscope of blood vessels burst, petunia-like, in her eyes, scarlet blasting into the white from mere eyestrain, or a careless swipe with her hand. It explained the strange way she never quite looked at me when we were speaking, staring at a table or down at a tile of a floor, as if halfheartedly plotting its disinfection while my scarcely controlled rage flew from my mouth in sentences I hoped would be, perhaps not then but perhaps later, like knives to her brain.
“Will you be in town for Christmas break?” the mothers asked.
I sipped at the tea. “No, I’m going home. But I will be back in January.”
“When in January?”
I gave them my references and a written summary of my experience. My experience was not all that much—just the Pitskys and the Schultzes back home. But as experience, too, I had once, as part of a class project on human reproduction, carried around for an entire week a sack of flour the exact weight and feel of an infant. I’d swaddled it and cuddled it and placed it in safe, cushioned places for naps, but once, when no one was looking, I stuffed it in my backpack with a lot of sharp pens, and it got stabbed. My books, powdery white the rest of the term, became a joke in the class. I left this out of my résumé, however.
But the rest I’d typed up. To gild the lily-livered, as my dad sometimes said, I was wearing what the department stores called “a career jacket,” and perhaps the women liked the professionalism of that. They were professionals themselves. Two were lawyers, one was a journalist, one was a doctor, one a high school teacher. Where were the husbands? “Oh, at work,” the women all said vaguely. All except the journalist, who said, “Good question!”
The last house was a gray stucco prairie house with a chimney cloaked in dead ivy. I had passed the house earlier in the week—it was on a corner lot and I’d seen so many birds there. Now there was just a flat expanse of white. Around the whiteness was a low wood Qual Line fence, and when I pushed open its gate it slipped a little; one of its hinges was loose and missing a nail. I had to lift the gate to relatch it. This maneuver, one I’d performed any number of times in my life, gave me a certain satisfaction—of tidiness, of restoration, of magic me!—when in fact it should have communicated itself as something else: someone’s ill-disguised decrepitude, items not cared for properly but fixed repeatedly in a make-do fashion, needful things having gotten away from their caregiver. Soon the entire gate would have to be held together with a bungee cord, the way my father once fixed a door in our barn.
Two slate steps led, in an odd mismatch of rock, downward to a flagstone walk, all of which, as well as the grass, wore a light dusting of snow—I laid the first footprints of the day; perhaps the front door was seldom used. Some desiccated mums were still in pots on the porch. Ice frosted the crisp heads of the flowers. Leaning against the house were a shovel and a rake, and shoved into the corner two phone books still in shrink-wrap.
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I've read serveral of Lorrie Moore's insightful, witty stories--mostly in The New Yorker magazine--and she's an excellent short fiction writer. But her novel, "A Gate at the Stairs," is weak. (That's not so unusual. Many short story writers can't write a decent novel--Alice Munro, for one.) The characters and the plot in "A Gate at the Stairs" start out being intersting, but that interest peters out as the novel plods along. By far the most intriguing character, a sassy, toothless, and pregnant delinquent named Amber, shows up early in the book--and then is never seen again! What a shame. Moore should have written the novel about Amber. By the time I got to the last quarter of the book, I was skimming--never a good sign.
My problem with "A Gate at the Stairs" lies mainly with the language that the author employs to describe the scenes and characters of the book. The language is often flowery, the similes and metaphors a little too much for this style of book. The strength of the book comes from the relationships, especially between Tassie and Sarah, and Tassie and Mary-Emma; but there again there are weaknesses. The strange turnaround of Tassie's mysterious boyfriend is odd and seems to come out of left-field. We understand there is more to him than meets the eye, but what happens doesn't seem to fit with the personality that we saw before. Tassie's relationship with her brother is also strange; they seem not at all close, but when making a very important decision, the brother turns to her for advice, which she doesn't even acknowledge. The book is entertaining, and in the end, heartbreaking, and I enjoyed reading it, but when I finished I was left with more questions, and criticisms than I started with. We definitely see Tassie come of age, but the events of the book seem almost overwhelming to someone of her age. The many tragedies and critical events that occur seem too much for the span of less-than-two years that the novel covers. Book clubs may enjoy this book, because there are definitely multiple subjects and current hot topics to keep people talking; look especially to the conversations that occur in Sarah's racial-discussion meetings. The comments are interesting, and the fact that we usually don't know who says what makes them that more interesting.
This book seems like the amalgam of four or five badly-edited short stories. Tassie does not speak, think, or act like a midwestern college kid raised on a farm. She knows an encyclopedia of cultural trivia that no 20-year old on planet Earth could know intimately or critically. Her inner life is a blend of a young girl's physical lofe and a 50-year-old's memories. Dialogue is very well written and the author has a lot of clever "riffs" that are engaging to read, but the plot contains unbelievable acts and outcomes (or non-outcomes). If Moore's intent is to make the novel itself stand as a metaphor of the confusion and disconnectedness of the recent nine years, she failed in my view. One final note, I think her editor was unable or unwilling to push back. Moore, like Philip Roth, seems now too renowned a writer to be carefully edited by her publisher.
Although Tassie is an interesting protagonist, and the plot has interesting twists, the book is overwritten. Pages and pages of description do little to further Tassie's character. Pages and pages of SPOILER dialog fulminating against racism, although cleverly written, with a good ear, needed to be edited down. Overall, not a total waste, but a real disappointment.
just can't get to like this book - and first time ever that no one in my bookclub finished the book. Usually we read all books no matter if we like them or not and usually someone will like the book. This was just plain waste of paper
What a collossal waste of time and money. It was so awful, I wouldn't even recycle it, for fear that someone might find it and attempt to read it. I couldn't be that cruel. Though the novel had the promise of a decent plot, it became bogged down with endless, nonsensical descriptions. This included an entire alliterative page of items beginning with "p." Spoiler alert!! I wish she had stayed in the casket with her poor brother.
I bought this book after I read a raving review in a magazine's book recommendation section. I thought I would connect with Tassie's character, because I too am a college girl from the Midwest, who is a nanny. However, I found the book to be unrealistic and it contained too many plot lines that were forced together, many of which were left hanging. I had to force myself to finish the book, which ultimately left me sadly disappointed and I wished I had spent my money elsewhere.
There has been much acclaim and chatter about Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs: it made the NYT Top 10 List of 2009, and all of my librarian friends rave about it. From the reviews, I'd been expecting something like Ann Patchett/Anne Tyler: meandering, lyrical, adult. And yes, Lorrie Moore's writing is all of these things. But she has captured something that has become scarce in a market oversaturated with teen vampire novels - a true coming of age story. Tassie Keltjin leaves her small farm town for college in the city, rising up into one new epiphany after another. She is smart, kind, and introspective, but mainly, she is an empath: her ability to love and feel for the people around her magnifies their lives and emotions, making them more complex and lovable than their experiences alone. When Tassie becomes a nanny, she is pulled into a dramatic and heartbreaking net of secrets and loss - both the family's and her own - and her empathy once again makes the entire situation both more and less bearable. Though at times this book seems to focus on too many people's emotions, as a coming of age novel, it's perfect: micro-focused in short bursts on the person most in need at the time, creating an overall picture of what matters Tassie's life. The haunting moments are subtle and sneaky, but they are there, and they are unforgettable. In the end, Tassie is transformed, aware, broken-hearted - as will be anyone who reads this novel.
this was the worst book ever. I have read books that I didn't enjoy before but this book was so bad I had to write this review. The characters lacked depth, Ms. Moore used way too many words to get her point across and the whole story was unrealistically depressing. What was she thinking and why did I finish this book?
I read over 3/4 of the book - there were moments that I liked, but I had to force myself to keep reading. Finally I gave up. Didn't like the characters. Didn't think they were interesting.
I chose this when I read a review in The Buffalo News and read two thirds of this today feeling like I couldn't stop until I got the the end. The free form flow of the narrative draws the reader in and makes the main character seem so familiar. The first person storytelling feels immediate and allows the reader to get wrapped up into the confusion she feels as a young adult coming of age in the midst of the complicated adult lives around her.
I read this book in a day - it is definitely a page-turner. Ms. Moore has a powerful voice and a vivid way of depicting people, places, and feelings. I think this book would have been *great* if the story had been pared down ruthlessly. There is too much of most of the good things (colloquial quirks, dialogue, and the like). There is also too much going on - too many story lines. Also, some things are over-illustrated, like the snippets of politico-social Wednesday evening conversations or the pedantry of the narrator, which I found annoyingly repetitive. I got the sense that the book was written a few chapters beyond the end of the story, which made me question the story itself. Was it about interracial adoption or was it more like "the diary of 6 weird months in the life of a very insecure college woman"?
I might be the only person out there who didn't like this novel. Or maybe not. There is too much going on - with both Moore's use of language and plot. Sometimes she'll utilize more than one simile to describe an object; it's as if she couldn't make up her mind which was better. Mosquitoes are compared with irises, "unbarbered boys," orchids, and "a gnome's sleigh." All in one sentence. Other lines just made me roll my eyes, like, "She would have to make do in this landlocked lake of love." And, please, enough with the wordplay. Moore is notorious for this, but in this novel it began to grow tiresome. The plot, too, wearied me, specifically all the losses Tassie sustains near the end. What real purpose does Reynaldo serve, for example? Must we have him up and disappear, quite probably part of a terrorist cell, the adopted child taken away, and Tassie's brother killed? All this and a discussion regarding race and racism and war? I would have liked to see Moore settle on one story. Some of the most enjoyable pages for me concerned the group Tassie's employer gets together to discuss racism. Moore utilizes dialogue without acknowledging who says what. Very Barthelme. Other than that, ho hum. And I so liked Anagrams...
In the Midwest in September 2001, twenty years old Tassie Keltjin, daughter of a gentleman potato farmer, is at college looking forward to the greats of literature. In between her semesters, she takes a position as a nanny to restaurateur Sarah Brink, who has no children yet but is considering adoption. Sarah begins her search for a suitable pregnant woman who does not want to raise a child or have an abortion. She has a choice between a girl without a brain or a white female whose African-American boyfriend dumped her when she mentioned the "P" word. Meanwhile Tassie receives an education on social class and race relationships while finding a lover Reynaldo, who conceals from her elements of his life. This is a terrific character study of a a young woman just after 9/11 trying to make sense of a world that seems out of control from her relative understanding. Tassie makes the story line as the center holding it together with her wonderful mix of gentle naivety and Midwestern potato wisdom. Fans will enjoy her escapades with 9/11 in the backdrop as Lorrie Moore explores the issues that split society through her intelligent yet bewildered protagonist coming of age. Harriet Klausner
This is one of the worst books I have ever read.. No one in our book club was able to finish it and several people couldn't sustain interest past the first chapter. . This book needed strong editing, character development, consistency, and a plot worth reading. Borrow from the library if you must read it,
The author writes beautifully and describes the fauna and flora in vivid details so that I could see the Wisconsin farmland, the home of the protege. The story is a coming of age of a child of a gentleman farmer and his wife who is attending college in the "big city" of Troy, WI. She accepts a job as a babysitter for a couple from the east coast who are in the process of adopting a biracial child. As the story unfolds, the author suddenly sends two zingers - twists that are completely unexpected, and in doing so, took away some of my enjoyment in the book.
Language, like never-ending riffs on a guitar- scratching at every nerve-ending. Soliloquies on race, packaged as Wednesday night consciousness meetings. Jihadists hiding in homogenized midwest conducting affairs with benign farm girls. This book is much longer than it needs to be. I've never been a fan of the short story and less so now.
Wish I had read the reviews before I started the book. Bought it on the whim, have struggled through 3/4 and am finally giving up. Plot line leaves a lot to be desired, as does character development. Wish I hadn't wasted the time.
I had such high hopes for this book, but was disappointed in the end. The tragedies were tragic, but i really did not feel connected to the main character who seemed so bland but yet had such overly rich internal dialogue. There were so many loose ends that left undone did nothing other than leave me irritated for wasting my time on this book. It had potential, but it got bogged down in flowery metaphors and descriptions. I never skim pages, but i did on this one .