BOOK: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (2009)

As this novel opens, 20 year-old Tassie Keltjin has recently moved from her parent’s farm in the rural Midwest to a moderately-sized college town.  Her first round of exams behind her, she decides to try to find a job to help pay her way.  Figuring the ideal gig would be a nanny position — flexible hours, nap time equals study time, etc.  — she works her way to the door of Sarah and Edward Brink, a middle-aged couple who, oddly enough, do not have any children.  As it turns out, though, they are planning to adopt soon, and because they are both busy professionals, they wanted to make sure they had a nanny lined up in advance.  It’s a move, Tassie realizes a few weeks in, that is very telling in terms of Sarah’s nature: cautious, measured, prepared, and all that tidiness calculated to hide something — some personality trait — that starts to feel kind of “off” to Tassie later on.

Yet despite the fact she finds Sarah a bit weird and Edward strangely aloof, Tassie takes the job and even joins the couple as they begin to interview birth mothers.  Eventually, Sarah and Edward adopt a mixed-race little girl they name Mary-Emma, and Tassie’s adventures into nannydom — and into the increasingly troubled (and troubling) Brink family — begin for real.

Though I enjoyed this novel for the most part, especially the sections about adoption and the almost comic social politics involved in being a wealthy white couple with a mixed-race child, I had the same problems with it I often have with Moore’s writing, problems here amplified by the fact this is a novel instead of her usual short story. Moore’s style — a meanderingness punctuated by wordplay I sometimes find awkwardly placed and jarring — works pretty well here as the voice of a 20 year-old farm girl.  But even thinking about it in those terms — the terms of a realistically drawn 20 year-old voice, I mean — didn’t change the fact it still struck me as not being quite as sharply written as it needed to be.

As usual, Moore turns incredible phrases frequently — when she’s on, she’s easily one of the best writers I’ve encountered in the last few years, my god — but those moments of gape-inducing awesomeness were often dampened by  frequent tangents that played little role besides, it seemed to me, that of supporting  Moore’s desire to be as witty as possible.

And don’t even get me started with the whole terrorist-boyfriend subplot:  so unnecessary and so awkwardly done.  I could tell what Moore’s goal was, given the story’s setting (about a year post-9/11), but she didn’t come even close to nailing it.  A good editor, in my opinion, would’ve chopped that whole chunk out, and, frankly, tightened this novel up into a novella instead.

I want to repeat that I think Moore is a mind-blowingly talented writer, and if you’ve never read any of her short fiction, you should stop reading this crappy blog right now and go dig some up (I reviewed her story collection Birds of America about a year ago — you can start there).  But I think she’s a much stronger writer when she’s writing under space constraints.  Somehow, this novel ended up feeling both overwritten AND underwritten to me.  I still enjoyed it quite a bit, but by the end I was ready to be done.   Never a good sign.

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2 Responses to “BOOK: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (2009)”

  1. Liz Says:

    Okay – now we start talking about “True Grit” – right?

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