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A Gate at the Stairs [DECKLE EDGE] (Hardcover)

Uncertain brilliance, August 19, 2009
By Robert Holland "" (Decatur, GA USA)

Like other reviewers I come to this novel as an admirer of Lorrie Moore's piquant short stories, which render with deftness and sympathy the oddness, pleasure, and pain of being human. All of Moore's strengths as a writer -- her ability to find just the right off-the-wall metaphor, her comic sidewise advance on the most painful experiences, her sardonic wit -- are on display here. But the space afforded her by the longer form appears to have reduced her vigilance in maintaining the economy and precision of her shorter fiction. Too much of a good thing is sometimes just too much.

There were long (they seemed long anyway) stretches in the novel where I wanted to say "OK, I get the point! These people are callow and self-absorbed." Or where I wished she had stopped after the first, or even the second, mind-bending metaphor for the same observation.

And then there is the plot, which hangs together only tenuously. Tassie at school and Tassie at home seem largely unconnected, and there are elements of suspense introduced that trail off into nothingness. Perhaps this could be explained as imitative of life, but it often seems to be gratuitous.

Tassie's family is eccentric, a pleasure we have come to expect from Moore, but too often these people come off as self-parodies. The early character development of Tassie's brother Robert is a caricature that doesn't really pave the way for the depth of grief that engulfs the end of the novel.

Tassie is an interesting character and an entertaining narrator, but her insouciance and diffidence distance us from her throughout, and we never really fully penetrate her self-protective shield. In the end I agree with the reviewer who said that Moore would be better served by leaving the undergraduate world behind and finding adult company.

The Groves of Academe, redux, August 15, 2009
By M. Feldman (Bowdoin, Maine, USA)

A version of the first chapter of Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" recently appeared as a short story in "The New Yorker," and on the strength of that, I was excited to read the whole novel. The protagonist, Tassie Keltjin, a young woman from a small town who is a freshman at a Midwestern university, is very appealing in her awkwardness, her wry comments on life, and her growing self-awareness. Moore has a sharp eye for the pretensions of a college town, such as the fraught "support group" conversations that ensue when Tassie's employer, Sarah Brink (a perfect surname you'll discover), adopts a bi-racial child. The parts of the novel that center on this adoption process and on Tassie's relationship with the child are the strongest in the novel. I also loved the account of Tassie's rather aimless, unsupported academic life (and the goofy courses she takes). There are actually two narratives in "A Gate at the Stairs:" the first centers on Tassie's college life and the second on her home life. These two worlds do not intersect and the home narrative is much less successful. For reasons I couldn't fathom, Moore gives Tassie an unhappy Jewish mother who behaves oddly (she orders things online and never opens the boxes, for instance), although the reasons for her unhappiness are never divulged. I sensed that Moore was less comfortable with this material; the latke (potato pancake) frying scene was completely weird and wrong, for instance. (You don't grate potatoes the day before you make latkes, unless you enjoy fermentation and strange colors, and you certainly don't slap them together like a hamburger patty, as Tassie does.) The dad, an alternative-type farmer who grows heirloom potatoes for the kind of precious "gourmet" restaurant run by Sarah, is also unhappy, as is her brother, who escapes by joining the army. The Keltjins' hometown, with which they don't have much to do, is small in size and narrow-minded in outlook. None of this really hangs together the way the parts of the novel set in the college town do. It's stock parochial small town stuff, and it isn't improved at the end by the pastoral rhapsodies that Tassie indulges in after her life has taken a few strange turns, including a connection (rather unconvincing, I thought) to the post-9/11 world. Moore is a good writer, and "A Gate by the Stairs" is definitely worth a read, particularly for its satirical send-up of the kind of college town where naive small town freshmen stumble into courses like "Soundtracks to War Movies" and where Tassie meets her PE requirement AND gets a humanities credit for "The Perverse Body/The Neutral Pelvis." She finds out a lot about that, although not in class.