Cannonball Read IV: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore has a way with words. It’s very easy to get lost—in a good way—among her turns-of-phrase, imagery, and metaphors. A Gate at the Stairs is hardly about the action; most of it takes place in the thoughts of the protagonist. But that just makes the action that does take place all the more poignant.
We follow Tassie from the end of the fall semester of college through to the next fall semester, and a little beyond. For the first half of the book, even though things are happening, not much at all is really happening. It’s a character study. Tassie find work as a nanny of sorts for a couple and they all turn out to be a family of sorts. They’re not quite whole, but Tassie can’t quite put her finger on it, so she powers through. It seems a classic case of adults-know-better even when we feel odd about them. Also, that odd feeling makes us curious and endears them to us.
The introduction to Sarah (the mother) sums up that unease perfectly: “I feared Sarah was on those women who instead of laughing said, ‘That’s Funny,’ or instead of smiling said, ‘That’s interesting,’ or instead of saying, ‘You are a stupid blithering idiot,’ said ,’Well, I think it’s a little more complicated than that.’” And oh, was it ever a little more complicated.
There is something about Ms. Moore’s writing that makes it feel timeless, so I had to keep reminding myself of the timeframe of the story. I used context clues, like references to Modest Mouse and the description of iPods as new. The story’s timeframe is very important, though it’s left to just weigh over the whole of the story, not beat us over the head. It’s a post-9/11 story—that much I knew from the jacket—but it wasn’t solely about living in post-9/11 America. I was in the sense that that’s what Tassie and Sarah and everyone was doing, but it wasn’t in that they never talked about how things had changed, they just had.
Lorrie Moore is often revered as being funny. At no time was I amused by A Gate at the Stairs. Any of the amusing anecdotes or puns that ran through the narrator’s mind were born of nervousness and anxiety. She was rueful, not amused—she was not even bemused.
The book is unevenly paced. For some this is a problem, but I was able to overlook it. For some reason, it made sense in the world it created for itself. The pace of the book matched the pace of the life being lived. Tassie gets wrapped up in being part of this family she’s been absorbed into; at the same time, she’s learning about herself and the world. Eventually, those things will collide. I enjoyed the collision and the second half of the book so much, its slow start was forgiven, and upon reflection, I deemed it needed.
The one moment I was pulled out of the story was at the very, very end, when the narrator addresses the reader. I found it off-putting; acknowledging me takes away the specialness I felt by being so inside your head. Obviously we all know I’m the reader, but why go and ruin it by pointing it out?
Overall, A Gate at the Stairs is a poignant, lyrical novel. Unevenly paced, sure, and at times lacking center, but a joy to read, especially if you just love words.
(And many thanks to duckandcover for ensuring that we did not have an apostrophe catastrophe above. —mswas)
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