Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore
Knopf Doubleday
336 pages

Oh, how I so wanted to love this book.

You have no idea how much I wanted to fall in love with this book, as I have with every word Lorrie Moore has ever written.

You see, Lorrie Moore is among my absolute favorite writers.  Ever. I love short stories and in my view, nobody does short stories better than Lorrie Moore.  Her 1998 best-selling short story collection Birds of America is my which-book-would-you-take-to-a-desert-island? book.  (A must-read, without a doubt.)

Knowing that not everyone is a short story fanatic like I am, I was thrilled when A Gate at the Stairs was published, because I could now say, "This! This is the book.  This is why Lorrie Moore is my favorite writer.  Read it and see what I mean."

Alas.  This is not that book.  Not even close.

There are no words for the feeling when you buy a book (in hardback, no less), allow it to marinate on your night table for months, saving it for a special occasion (in my case, a beach vacation) in order to devour in a chunk of uninterrupted time ... and then the realization that, if this was anyone other than your favorite author, this would have been abandoned well before the time-honored 50 page limit. 

In A Gate at the Stairs, Tassie Keltjin is a 20 year old college student who takes a job as a part-time nanny for a family adopting a bi-racial child.  For the majority of the first part of the book, Tassie accompanies Sarah Brink (the mother-to-be, who is the owner of and chef at a high-end gourmet restaurant) on a series of visits to meet prospective birth mothers. 

Right from the get-go this seemed odd to me.  I have a little familiarity with similar matters (still, what the hell do I know?) and this seemed highly implausible to me.  Yet it was treated as matter-of-fact by everyone involved - social workers, lawyers, etc. Nobody questioned Tassie's reading of the birth mother's medical file  (by late 2001, we were immersed in HIPAA hell, were we not?)

Sarah is an odd bird.  She makes remarks about murdering someone, but being grateful that American Express covered the damages.  Um ...heh?  She tells Tassie that she will be bringing some food home from the restaurant - and to expect risotto to be FedExed to the house in the meantime.  Say what?  Her comments about ... well, about everything ... are always just a tad "off." As is her behavior.  (She microwaves library books to get rid of the germs.)

Clearly, there's a disconnect with this woman - which is the premise of the novel.  There's a disconnect with a lot of people in A Gate at the Stairs. This sense that people are not always what they seem has worked in other novels and other forms while still engaging the reader with the story - but it misses its mark in these pages.  (Think Fargo. The cold Midwestern landscape is a dominent force in this book, which made me think of the Coen brothers' brilliant movie ... except, this isn't Fargo.)  Like the landscape, there's a flatness to this book. I never got a sense of feeling connected to the characters.

The setting was off, too.  Supposedly this is right after 9/11. Um, I still remember the months after 9/11.  I remember flying right after 9/11.  I don't remember it being an easy process, but that's not the way this is portrayed in this book. 

There's barely a plot. Babysitter Tassie spends more time with baby Mary-Emma than her parents do. When she does, she takes her over to her boyfriend's apartment who she is in love with. He has a secret. It takes until page 205 before this is revealed and ... pfffft. Over, done.

Am I nit-picking here?  Yeah, probably.  But I think doing so is justified because this is a novel by an author I still consider to be one of the best contemporary fiction writers among us today.  I truly, truly believe this. Lorrie Moore is among the best of the best. 

Which is why it greatly pains me to write this review.  I debated not publishing it.  I'm hoping to all hell Lorrie Moore doesn't read it (I am so sorry, Lorrie) because I am really a mega fangirl of hers and I don't want her to be mad at me.  Maybe I came to this with too high of expectations, and maybe that's why A Gate at the Stairs was so disappointing to me.  Maybe this is really great literature with lots of subtleties that just went over my clueless head.  Wouldn't be the first time.

Regardless of why it didn't work for me, I couldn't help but think that this seemed like several short stories woven together - loosely - to make a novel.  (After some racial insults are said about her daughter, Sarah convenes a support group of other parents with bi-racial children.  In these scenes, there are traces of Moore's brilliant short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here".  Had this particular subplot been a short story, I think it would have worked beautifully.)

In A Gate at the Stairs, there are references throughout to staircases (to heaven, to prevent babies from falling, symbolic ones of the towers on 9/11?).  In the house where Tassie cares for baby Mary-Emma, there are two staircases (again, the Twin Towers?)

Take it from one who has read - and who owns - everything Lorrie Moore's published.  Bypass this particular staircase and don't go through this gate.  Instead, open one (I highly, highly suggest Birds of America) leading to Moore's very best work, that which is found in her short stories. 

What Other Bloggers Thought:

A Book a Week
Alison's Book Marks
Bibliophile by the Sea
Book Gazing
Farm Lane Books
I'm Booking It
S. Krishna's Books

And Others:
Washington Post

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Laura @ I'm Booking It said...

I'm sorry this book was such a disappointment to you. I suspect that some of it was expectations-- I came at it with no expectations, and it worked somewhat better for me, even though I don't disagree with anything you said (although my memories are a little hazy at this point!).

At your urging, I will try some of her other work someday, but as always, so many books, so little time!

nomadreader said...

A Gate at the Stairs was my first Moore book, and I wasn't terribly wild about it, although I did like parts of it. I'm glad to hear a "fangirl" of hers felt so similarly (I imagine if I had your expectations, I would carry more anger and disappointment than I do). I do want to read more Moore, although I am not a lover of short stories. Thanks for the suggestion of where to start. Thanks for linking to my review too!

Jenny said...

Well, your review was great! =) I hate when I read something by an author I love and I don't like it... and I totally understand how you feel about not wanting them to get mad. Except in my case I wrote a review of a book I didn't like (young adult) but said how much I loooved the author's other books and the author still actually left me a mean comment... I'm sure Lorrie Moore has much more class than that!!