A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore
â€śThe flat, green world of my parentsâ€™ hogless, horseless farmâ€”its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machineryâ€”twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights…My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone du Beauvoir.â€ť
Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 10, 2009)
Lorrie Mooreâ€™s superb novel, A Gate At The Stairs, is told through the voice of 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin. A farmerâ€™s daughter, Tassie attends a liberal arts college and is slowly navigating the daily intricacies of life. â€śI had come from Dellacrosse Central, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troyâ€”â€śthe Athens of the Midwestâ€ťâ€”as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Columbian tribe Iâ€™d read of in Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only storiesâ€”no experienceâ€”of the outside world,â€ť Tassie recounts.
To support herself while at college, Tassie applies for a job as a babysitter with a local couple: Sarah Brink and Edward Thornwood, who are looking to adopt. The two have moved to the college town from the Eastâ€”Sarah owns a local restaurant, Petit Moulin, while her husband is a cancer researcher. They end up adopting a biracial African-American child, Mary Emma or â€śEmmieâ€ť as she comes to be called.
Initially unsure about babies and children in general (â€śI was every hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps,â€ť Tassie admits) she nonetheless develops a deep attachment toward Emmie and often gets mistaken for the toddlerâ€™s mother. While at college, she also falls for a mysterious Brazilian named Reynaldo and evenings are often spent walking Emmie in a stroller to Reynaldoâ€™s apartment.
Mooreâ€™s writing is simply spectacular and is certainly the star of this wonderful novelâ€”a novel one should add, that fans have breathlessly waited for, for 15 years. Every sentence is made to be savored and the wordplay never gets tiring. Here, for example, is Mooreâ€™s description of Sarahâ€™s restaurant, Petit Moulin:
â€śIt was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entrĂ©e freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollock, filets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies, restaurants to which students never went, except if newly pinned to a fraternity boy or dating an assistant dean or hosting a visit from their concerned suburban parents.â€ť
A Gate at the Stairs is set in post 9-11 America and it deals with complex issues: racism, balancing career and motherhood, the complexities of adoption, and war effortlessly. Even in â€śprogressive, exemplaryâ€ť Troy, Emmie is the target of racismâ€”both overt and subtly hinted at. When Tassie brings Emmie to the local playground once, a white woman suggests her daughter have a playdate with Emmie: â€śMy Maddie doesnâ€™t have any African American friends and I think it would be good for her to have one,â€ť she says. â€śThe idea that Mary-Emma would be used like thatâ€”to amuse and educate white children, give them an experience, as if she were a hired clownâ€”enraged me,â€ť Tassie recounts.
Moore also wonderfully details Tassieâ€™s life back home in Dellacrosseâ€”a place that is as alien to her as Troy. Her relationships with her brother and parents are done beautifully. â€śI tried not to think about my life. I did not have any good solid plans for it long termâ€”no bad plans either, no plans at allâ€”and the lostness of that, compared with the clear ambitions of my friends (marriage, children, law school) sometimes shamed me,â€ť Tassie says. It speaks volumes about the town they live in that Tassieâ€™s younger brother, Robert, thinks of her as a mature, street-smart siblingâ€”everything Tassie knows she is not.
About half of the way in, the story accelerates and Moore piles on the revelations. For one thing, boyfriend Reynaldo is not really who he seems to be. Since he is always a tad strange and aloof, this is easy to believe. What are harder to take are the larger deceptions: As it turns out the Thornwood-Brinks are harboring a tragic secret of their own. This â€śsecretâ€ťâ€”which ends up affecting Tassie as wellâ€”is revealed in such brilliant and vivid detail that it leaves the reader gasping and breathless. Suddenly the entire novel shifts perspective and you begin to see the couple in a new light.
One of Tassieâ€™s favorite descriptors is â€śquasi.â€ť She is never completely in love with an idea nor completely against it. She is always â€śquasi.â€ť Moore does an expert job in chronicling this emotional detachmentâ€”which is not as much a product of an uncaring personalityâ€”as it is of a person who is still trying to find her way around the world. The problem is that harsh life events violently thrust her into an adult world where loss and grief are part of the landscape.
A Gate At the Stairs is a superlative account of one girlâ€™s coming of age. Merely twenty-one, Tassie has already experienced love (of course), loss, deception and that most adult of all emotionsâ€”regret.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 268 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Knopf (September 1, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page onÂ Lorrie Moore|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Some of our favorite coming of age novels:|
- Self Help : Stories (1985)
- Anagrams (1986)
- Birds of America : Stories (1988)
- Like Life: Stories (1990)
- Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)
- A Gate at the Stairs (2009)
- Bark: Stories (February 2014)
- The Forgotten Helper (1987)
September 10, 2009
Â· Judi Clark Â· Comments Closed
Tags: Post 9/11 Â· Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, Reading Guide, US Midwest, y Award Winning Author