A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore

Book Quote:

“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…My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone du Beauvoir.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 10, 2009)

Lorrie Moore’s superb novel, A Gate At The Stairs, is told through the voice of 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin. A farmer’s daughter, Tassie attends a liberal arts college and is slowly navigating the daily intricacies of life. “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 Columbian tribe I’d read of in 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,” 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 East—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 “Emmie” as she comes to be called.

Initially unsure about babies and children in general (“I was every hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps,” Tassie admits) she nonetheless develops a deep attachment toward Emmie and often gets mistaken for the toddler’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 Reynaldo’s apartment.

Moore’s writing is simply spectacular and is certainly the star of this wonderful novel—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 Moore’s description of Sarah’s restaurant, Petit Moulin:

“It was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entrée 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.”

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 “progressive, exemplary” Troy, Emmie is the target of racism—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: “My Maddie doesn’t have any African American friends and I think it would be good for her to have one,” she says. “The idea that Mary-Emma would be used like that—to amuse and educate white children, give them an experience, as if she were a hired clown—enraged me,” Tassie recounts.

Moore also wonderfully details Tassie’s life back home in Dellacrosse—a place that is as alien to her as Troy. Her relationships with her brother and parents are done beautifully. “I tried not to think about my life. I did not have any good solid plans for it long term—no bad plans either, no plans at all—and the lostness of that, compared with the clear ambitions of my friends (marriage, children, law school) sometimes shamed me,” Tassie says. It speaks volumes about the town they live in that Tassie’s younger brother, Robert, thinks of her as a mature, street-smart sibling—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 “secret”—which ends up affecting Tassie as well—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 Tassie’s favorite descriptors is “quasi.” She is never completely in love with an idea nor completely against it. She is always “quasi.” Moore does an expert job in chronicling this emotional detachment—which is not as much a product of an uncaring personality—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 girl’s coming of age. Merely twenty-one, Tassie has already experienced love (of course), loss, deception and that most adult of all emotions—regret.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 268 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (September 1, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Lorrie Moore
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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September 10, 2009 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags:  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, Reading Guide, US Midwest, y Award Winning Author