“A Gate at the Stairs” by Lorrie Moore

I was warned off A Gate at the Stairs by more than one reader friend. Eh, they said, it’s not her best. Read her stories instead. So I was a little disappointed to see it on the short list for this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, but decided to read it anyway. I agree it’s not a great book, but am not sorry I read it.

In the fall of 2001, Tassie Keltjin is a midwestern college student who grew up on her father’s boutique farm in Wisconsin. Searching for a job, she stumbles into a nanny position for an older couple who are adopting. An older, more experienced Tassie narrates, so there’s often a mismatch between the voice telling the story and the naive, inexperienced girl whose story it’s telling. The couple, Sarah and Edward, are socially awkward and uncomfortable, and there is little comfort to be found in the pages of this novel. But it’s even unsettling in its unsettlingness, as the book itself seems cold, distant and disjointed. A paragraph toward the end of the book captured the feeling I had when I read it:

The people in this house, I felt, and I included myself, were like characters each from a different grim and gruesome fairy tale. None of us was in the same story. We were all grotesques, and self-riveted, but in separate narratives, and so our interactions seemed weird and richly meaningless, like the characters in a Tennessee Williams play, with their bursting, unimportant but spell-bindingly mad speeches (249)

This book has many threads. There’s Tassie’s coming-of-age story, the mystery of why Sarah and Edward’s marriage seems so strange, a subplot about terrorism and another about the military, a critique of well-intentioned liberals, and, throughout, questions about race and racism. They never quite came together for me, and perhaps that wasn’t Moore’s intention, as she hints at in the above paragraph. And while she can write beautiful, attention-getting sentences and passages, I found myself wanting a deeper, more coherent narrative. I can see why her style might be better suited to short stories.

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