Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore is well known and widely respected as a short-story writer. This is her first novel in 15 years and her first book in 11, so it got a lot of attention and many rave reviews.

A Gate at the Stairs begins in the winter following 9/11, with smart, quirky Tassie Keltjin transitioning from her Midwest farming-community hometown to a liberal-minded college town where she's seeking employment between terms. She finds work as a nanny for a high-strung woman named Sarah Brink, who is adopting a "bi-racial" two-year-old. Grief and tragedy ensue as Tassie experiences the sometimes baffling, sometimes comical, sometimes brutal initiation into adult life.

Tassie is a terrific protagonist smart, empathetic and at times hilariously awkward and her responses to her experiences are funny, honest and moving. Her reflections on relationships, parenthood and racism are keen and insightful, and Moore is really good at finding just the right words to pinpoint her feelings.

But there are parts of this novel that really don't work. For example, the boyfriend who turns out to be a member of a terrorist cell seems silly and implausible. (I gave away this plot twist because it's pretty lame and also pretty obvious as you read along).

Also many of Tassie's observations are just way too precocious. How many 20-year-olds can actually name every flower and tree they see, much less wax poetic about them? There are so many soliloquies and asides in this book that feel much more like Lorrie Moore than Tassie Keltjin great writing, beautiful, clever words and phrases, but way too writerly and lyrical to fit the character. And sometimes just too tangential to hold my attention. More focus on plot and less on poetry would have made this a better novel, in my opinion.

But despite these complaints, when I closed the book I had a feeling that I'd just read a very good novel an important one, even. There's more than enough humor, wisdom and insight in these pages to make me recommend it. And I'll definitely give her short stories a try.


Blogger Cristi said...

Thanks Lisa, I've been wondering about this book. Sounds interesting, though I totally agree with you that those kinds of instances of over-writing (is that what it's called?) can be really distracting. Has anyone read anything else by Lorrie Moore?

Blogger Cheri said...

I haven't. Thanks for the balanced, generous review, Lisa. I'll definitely keep this book in mind.

Blogger Cheri said...

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