19 May 2011

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Brief Synopsis
This is the story of Tassie Keltjin. Tassie was raised in the country in the American mid-west and has moved into the nearby town of Troy to attend college. The story follows about  12 month period in her life following 9/11. The story begins with Tassie as she find a job as a nanny with a family who is in the process of adopting. The story follows her through her life as a college student adjusting to city life, experimenting with independence and adulthood, her job as nanny and reconciling with her family and life in the country. She encounters periods of contentment, loneliness, happiness and loss.

Thoughts and Reflections
This book was given to me more than a year ago. I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading it, perhaps because I didn't feel like reading an American author and revisiting the 9/11 issue. I'm not sure. However, once I found the time and had a gap in my requests from the public library, I dove in quickly. 

This novel had some beautiful descriptive writing. I really enjoyed the word choice, the wit, the subtle and intelligent humour and description.  Moore used a mix of positive and negative statements, leaving the reader confused and amused. This method of description leaves the read questioning the moment and never totally sure of how things are. I really enjoyed this element of the novel, this ambiguity and lack of clarity. The descriptions of places, people, and the situation were very true to life, where a person never really knows how things stand or if any particular moment is positive or negative or anything at all. 

Lorrie Moore created very real characters with flaws and strengths. The reader was slowly allowed into the mind, emotions, and experiences of the protagonist, Tassie. It was easy getting to know her and the world around her. She is a real character and one that the reader can relate to. 

The book, though mentions 9/11, does not place the event as the central point of the novel. In fact, the story more indicated how life just went on after such a shocking event. Likewise, life just carried on after the other hiccups and tragedies in Tassie's life. I appreciated this theme. These events, from 9/11 to the loss of her first boyfriend, to the death of her brother, though tragic, were not life-altering. Life slowed, sped up, and changed to some degree, but overall, life went on.

Throughout the story, there is the lingering sense that things are slowly spiralling out of control, but the reader is never really sure if they really are spiralling out of control and why they would be. This sense kept my attention. I read with a sense of mild dread and curiosity. However, never was there the sense of despair or that oppressive fatalistic feeling. 

The title, as far as I can tell, has little to do with the story. If anyone has any idea how the title of the novel relates to the story, I'd be keen to know! There are meandering discussions of racism, though no direct message is sent. The book more explores the ongoing discussion around racism in America. The rural-urban issues is also lightly touched upon, never making any judgement one way or the other. The ending is a strange one and one that I'm not entirely certain how to interpret. Nonetheless, the book left me thinking about the characters and themes. I enjoyed reading the novel and will very likely read it again. Events weren't necessarily shocking, but I feel rereading the book again would shed some more light on matters. Though I understood what I was reading, I still feel as though I've missed some things. 

This book was definitely a strange entanglement of lives, stories, and themes. I enjoyed the novel very much and would certainly recommend it, especially for it's quirky and unique descriptive writing. 

About the Author
Lorrie Moore was born in New York state in 1957. She attended St Lawrence College. At the age of 19, she kicked off her writing career by winning a fiction writing contest through Seventeen magazine. She worked as a paralegal for a couple of years before moving to Manhattan to attend Cornell University to do a Master's of Fine Arts. Under the mentorship of a professor at Cornell, Lorrie was put in contact with a writer's agent, who successfully published Lorrie's first set of stories to Knopf in 1983. She is currently a professor of Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Things I Loved About This Novel
1. Tassie, the protagonist. I enjoyed how average she was. 
2. The descriptive writing. 
3. The unassuming method of discussing an assortment of heavy issues. 


julienne said...

Andrea, I'm glad you read this book--I was introduced to Lorrie Moore by Val and subsequently devoured all of her short story collections. So this novel went on my Christmas list and was read before New Year's Eve last year.

I love Lorrie Moore's sharp wit and lightning insights--the way she can build a vivid character in twenty words and make you ache for them in two pages. This is why she is such a brilliant short storyist.

I enjoyed this novel less than her short stories--I think because of the multiple heavy themes. While I find her talent for the grotesque is one of my favourite things about Moore's writing, here it started to seem improbable--the sheer number of awful things that happened to Tassie, piled one on the other.

But I love her writing. Nobody writes like Lorrie Moore. (My favourite collection of short stories is Birds of America, btw).

About the title--early in the story when Tassie first goes to the Brinks' house--there is a gate at the stairs of their house, I believe. It probably is meant to hint at the idea of barriers (racial, gendered?), or maybe (as in almost all of Moore's stories) the idea that unmitigated happiness, or naive idealism, is ultimately unnattainable.

Andrea said...

Hey Julie,

Thanks for the insight! :) That makes a tonne of sense about barriers, etc. I will definitely take a gander at Birds of America to dabble in the short stories. I definitely dig her style! :)