three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
By: 
Lorrie Moore
user_rating: 
0

A-A Gate at the StairsLorrie Moore is an acclaimed novelist, short story writer, and professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work includes Anagrams, Self-Help, Birds of America, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?.

The Story: Set in 2001, just after the tragic events of 9/11, a young woman experiences a first tumultuous year in college. Tassie Keltjin, a bright but naïve 20-year-old, finds the fictional town of Troy (a stand-in for Madison, Wisconsin) to be worlds away from her parent’s boutique potato farm. She is dazzled by her new intellectual community, and she whiles away the hours quoting Sylvia Plath and taking courses like wine tasting and war-film music. When she secures a position as a nanny for an affluent couple trying to finalize the adoption of a mixed-race toddler, Tassie learns some eye-opening truths about what it means to be an adult.
Knopf. 322 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780375409288

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Moore may be … the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny. Most of all, Moore is capable of enlisting not just our sympathies but our sorrows." Jonathan Lethem

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Moore has written her most powerful book yet. … While very funny at times, it is concerned at heart with the consequences of carelessness—of failing to pay attention to, or fight for, those one loves—and the random, out-of-the-blue events that can abruptly torpedo or transform a life." Michiko Kakutani

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Moore’s writing is exquisite. … To read Moore’s prose is surely to witness a master at work, and yet her prose does more than cast a spell: It serves." Cheryl Strayed

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Lyrical, funny, disturbing and at times brilliantly insightful. … [M]uch of A Gate at the Stairs is uncommonly rich in pithy observations, startling realizations and zany nuggets of satire." Misha Berson

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I should warn you that Moore is a lot more interested in her narrator than her plot. … Things do happen—even startling, gripping things—but any reader who needs that to stay engaged will have drifted away 200 pages earlier during one of Tassie’s soliloquies." Ron Charles

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"[B]ecause the plot is so high-pitched, it ends up feeling less like a novel and more like a twentieth-century morality play. … This is Greek tragedy cloaked in a coming-of-age cape." Maggie Galehouse

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 of 5 Stars
"In attempting to write a Big Book, Moore seems to have forgotten whether she was writing social realism or satiric surrealism. … So many bizarre plot twists and clever conversations all navigated in service of another saga about the battle of the sexes—weird and richly meaningless indeed." Evelyn McDonnell

Critical Summary

Eleven years have passed since the publication of Birds of America, just long enough for a new generation to be introduced to an author described as brilliant, uncomfortable, and "funny as hell" (Houston Chronicle). These are contradictory terms, certainly, and critics marveled at Moore’s ability to blend somber realism with humor and compassion. Her writing, however, occasionally suffers from its own excess, and a few critics described the characters and subplots as not quite credible. Others cited an overabundance of flat jokes and too-clever puns, as if the author was trying to impress readers with her "super-duper writing-seminar descriptions" (Washington Post). Overall, however, these were considered minor missteps in a novel well worth reading.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. In addition to her sense of humor and intelligence, what are Tassie's strengths as a narrator? How does what she describes as “an unseemly collection of jostling former selves” (p. 63) affect the narrative and contribute to the appeal of her tale?

2. In the farming community where Tassie grew up, her father “seemed a vaguely contemptuous character. . . . His idiosyncrasies appeared to others to go beyond issues of social authenticity and got into questions of God and man and existence” (p. 19). Does the family, either intentionally or inadvertently, perpetuate their standing as outsiders? How does Moore use what ordinarily might be seen as clichés and stereotypes to create believable and sympathetic portraits of both the locals and the Keltjin family?

3. How does the initial meeting between Tassie and Sarah (pp. 10-24) create a real, if hesitant, connection between them? What aspects of their personalities come out in their conversation? To what extent are their impressions of each other influenced by their personal needs, both practical and psychological?

4. Are Sarah's ill-chosen comments at the meetings with Amber (p. 32) and Bonnie (pp. 89-90, p. 93) the result of the natural awkwardness between a birth mother and a potential adoptive mother or do they reveal deeper insecurities in Sarah? Does the adoption process inevitably involve a certain amount of willful deception, unenforceable promises (p. 87), and a “ceremony of approval . . . [that is] as with all charades. . . . wanly ebullient, necessary, and thin” (p. 95)?

5. What is the significance of Tassie's first impression of Edward-“one could see it was his habit to almost imperceptibly dominate and insult”-and her realization that “[d]espite everything, [Sarah] was in love with him” (p. 91)? Does Edward's behavior at dinner and the “small conspiracy” he and Tassie establish (pp. 112-114) offer a more sympathetic (or at least more understandable) view of him? Are there other passages in the novel that bring out the contradictions between his outward behavior and his private thoughts?

6. Does A Gate at the Stairs accurately reflect the persistence of racism in America? What do the comments and encounters sprinkled throughout in the novel (pp. 80, 112, 151, 167, 229) show about the various forms racism takes in our society?

7. Do you agree with Sarah's statement, “Racial blindness-now there's a very white idea” (p. 86)? What do the discussions in Sarah's support group (pp. 154-57; 186-90; 194-97) reveal about the different perceptions of reality held by African-Americans and white liberals? What role do class, wealth, and professional status play in opinions expressed by various members of the group? In this context, what is the import of Tassie's description of Mary-Emma's affection for Reynaldo: “the colorblindness of small children is a myth; she noticed difference and sameness, with almost equal interest; there was no 'Dilemma of Difference' as my alliteration-loving professors occasionally put it” (p. 169)?

8. How would you characterize the comments about religion throughout the novel (pp. 41, 108, 129)? What is the significance of the fact that Tassie's mother is Jewish, a woman of “indeterminate ethnicity” in a churchgoing community? Why are Roberta Marshall and Sarah so cavalier about Bonnie's insistence that her child be raised as a Catholic (p. 87)? How do Reynaldo's revelations about his activities and beliefs (pp. 204-8) fit into Tassie's view of God and religion in general? On page 296, Tassie offers a thoughtful explanation of the purpose of religion in people's lives. Are there other lessons about the meaning of religion or faith to be found in the novel?

9. The title of the book comes from a ballad Tassie writes with her roommate (p. 219-20). What does music-playing the bass and singing to Mary-Emma-represent to Tassie? How does it connect her to her own family and to Mary-Emma?

10. Does the novel prepare you for Sarah's dreadful confession (pp. 232-242)? What particular incidents or conversations foreshadow the revelations? How do Sarah's “conventional” beliefs about men and women affect the couple's behavior during and after the tragedy (pp. 240, 244)? Was their decision to move and start anew the best solution under the circumstances? Do the reasons Sarah gives for remaining with Edward make emotional sense? If they had been able to keep their secret hidden, would they have been able to create a happy future with Mary-Emma?

11. Nannies and other household help often grasp things families don't realize about themselves. Is Tassie an objective chronicler of life in the Brink-Thornwood household? What biases does she bring to her observations? How do her perceptions and opinions change over the course of the novel? In what ways does her growing attachment to Mary-Emma and her relationship with Sarah account for these changes? In what ways are they attributable to the developments in her personal life?

12. How do the vignettes of Tassie's visits home and her life in Troy play off one another? What do Tassie's conversations with her family bring out about the ambivalence she (and many college students) experience? Why does Tassie fail to recognize the depth of Robert's pain and confusion? Is Robert's decision to join the army given the attention it deserves by the rest of the family?

13. Does the Midwestern setting of the novel offer a distinctive perspective on September 11, 2001, and the mood of the country? How were the events experienced in other parts of America-for example, in the cities directly affected by the terrorist attacks?

14. Lorrie Moore has been widely praised for her affecting depictions of human vulnerability and her dark humor. How does Moore integrate clever one-liners, puns, and wordplay into the serious themes she is exploring? What role does humor play in exposing the thoughts, feelings, and fears the characters are unwilling or unable to express? Does it heighten the emotional force of the novel or diminish it?

15. “I had also learned that in literature-perhaps as in life-one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself” (p. 263-64]. How does this quotation apply to your reading of A Gate at the Stairs?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.