Review: A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore wrote about the disconnect between men and women, about the precariousness of women on the edge, and about loneliness and loss.

Now, in her dazzling new novel—her first in more than a decade—Moore turns her eye on the anxiety and disconnection of post-9/11 America, on the insidiousness of racism, the blind-sidedness of war, and the recklessness thrust on others in the name of love.

As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer—his “Keltjin potatoes” are justifiably famous—has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir.

Between semesters, she takes a job as a part-time nanny.

The family she works for seems both mysterious and glamorous to her, and although Tassie had once found children boring, she comes to care for, and to protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own.

As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed.–Jacket copy

A Gate at the Stairs came to my attention when Amazon deemed it the best book of September 2009. I figured it must be worth waiting for when I placed my name on a long list at the library, and then nearly forgot about it for several months until I received a notice that it was ready for pickup. Having trouble remembering why I had ordered it, I was a bit skeptical at first. A few things about the book originally rank warning bells of pretentiousness. First, I hate deckle edge paper. Second, who needs a colophon for Garamond? I type in Garamond all the time, and don’t usually write a note about it. Third, long chapters with Roman numeral headings. Now, alone, none of these would probably have set off any alarms, but with all of them together, I was concerned.

I have not read much adult fiction recently, so it took a little while for me to hit my stride, but I’m glad I pushed forward with it. Moore’s writing straddled a fine line between the gracefully poetic and the mathematically precise; she finds the right words to describe nearly every occasion. I enjoyed reading Tassie’s narrative, which I related to at so many points, as I similarly struggle with the awkwardness of coming into your own in your early 20s, and the disconnect between home as you experienced it before leaving, and the home life you return to on breaks from college.

However, as much as the book soared at points, others fell flat. The Wednesday meetings of parents of bi-racial children were overdone, and I found myself skimming. Several plot lines felt like sidebars, their chatter distracting me from the central story, which I rather enjoyed. This book is described as “textured” in the jacket copy, and I agree that it is, but would argue that it is occasionally over-textured.

All that aside, it was an enjoyable, contemporary read with intimate writing and timely themes, all of which make me look forward to reading Moore’s older novels and short stories.

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