A Gate at the Stairs

book by Lorrie Moore

annotation by Heather Luby

This novel by Lorrie Moore, her first in over fifteen years, tries to do many things. Moore casts her net wide and tries to bring to the reader a story that is both coming of age, and a reflection of the time (post 9/11), but mixes in with these things love, tragedy, wit and the bizarre.

The story is told from the perspective of Tassie, a country farm girl who seems to both embrace this aspect of her identity (she enjoys helping her father in his organic potato fields) and yet it also seems a source of embarrassment. Even though Moore would like to have her reader believe that Tassie is a unique and quirky, it seems more likely that Moore has been removed from this age for too long to appreciate the very ordinary desire of all young people to feel they are different, smarter or more enlightened than their parents, and that in the end, just simply misunderstood.

Moore strives for humor with Tassie, and succeeds to a certain degree, but even her wit is tainted a bit with an underlying resentment or anger toward those around her. Much of this is focused at Tassie’s parents – her mother in particular – and seems to be grounded in nothing more than a selfish and immature attitude. While this makes her character very authentic – what freshman in college is not insufferable with their newfound knowledge and independence — it doesn’t make her likely to connect with most readers.

In addition to a coming of age story, centered on the small town farm girl going off to college and being wooed by the intellectuals, Chinese food and Silvia Plath, Moore is also telling the story of Sarah Brink, Tassie’s employer. Tassie is nanny to Sarah and Edward, who adopt a bi-racial baby. Moore dives into a world of marital unhappiness, the struggles of adoption, parenthood and the challenges of a white couple with a little biracial girl, and she does all this while also commenting on the prejudice and contradictory nature of the world around them.

More tragedy is introduced as Tassie finds out about the death of Sarah’s first child, when Sarah was actually called Susan, and did I mention that this is all going on while Tassie is falling in love with a student who might be a terrorist? And one more thing, the plot goes on to include her brother Robert, who graduates from high school and joins the Army, only to be killed in action.

This is not to say that Moore doesn’t do several things very well. She intertwines a world of humor, of clever observation, with a world cast in the shadow of impending doom. Moore gives the reader a dark foreshadowing incident and then follows it up with something humorous and wise so that later, when that something awful occurs, we have already forgotten that we should have seen it coming. This ability to move the reader back and forth is fluid and flawless. Her use of language, her descriptive passages of nature and of her surroundings are breathtaking – if not a bit distracting at times – and it is polished to perfection. And to a degree, Moore captures the angst of a teenage girl, especially in the paragraphs that detail her first sexual experiences and the inevitable breakup.

As much as I would like to praise the novel for these things alone, I feel it was too ambitious. Moore did many things well, but the large scope prevented her from doing any one thing great. It makes me think of movies with too many big name stars — you have high expectations — but in the end all the big egos in the room prevent you from really experiencing the story.

If you can ignore the plot contrivances, it becomes apparent that Moore is most interested in her narrator, in character development and what her characters have to say to the reader. This only leads me to wonder why she spent so much time weaving a complicated plot – full of unlikely situations — that, in the end, she ultimately felt abandoned and misused. Just as Tassie is crafted to be a clever, an insightful observer and commentator on the world and people around her, you never really see her character grow or mature. She is shallow and selfish in the beginning and is the same at the end.

A perfect example is how she can make commentary on a post 9/11 world and on the war, but when her brother emails her to say he is joining the Army and wants her advice on whether or not he should do it, she is so self absorbed in her own little world that she doesn’t bother to write him back. Once he joins the Army and is killed in action, she has this wrenching moment at his funeral where she crawls inside of his coffin and lies down next to him. But the time she spends actually contemplating how things would have been different had she written him back is nothing but a paragraph.

She spends a great amount of time sizing up the faults of her mother, but even after she discovers the glaring and unforgivable flaws of motherhood committed by Sarah, she never has a moment of clarity or perspective where she might see her own mother in a different light. Worse yet, after she is no longer Sarah’s nanny, she seeks out a possible position working for Sarah at her restaurant, all the while maintaining the distance between herself and her own mother, believing her mother has nothing to teach her.

I generally do not believe that characters have to change in a novel. But I do believe that characters must have the potential to change, or that as a reader, I should see the hope for them to change in the future. In this novel, I feel as if all the events in Tassie’s life so far have not given her the tools for proper self examination and self growth, then I have no hope for her. This aspect, more than anything else, is what I feel was lacking in this novel. If Moore intends to use plot only as a device to reveal character, and if character is the most important element of this novel, then why not give Tassie more depth?

As a writer, this book showed me that if you are doing to dismiss the importance of plot, you must get the characters right. Moore did not accomplish this with Tassie. And if you are going to concentrate on plot – and to me a white couple adopting a biracial baby had the most potential – then you have to pick the right narrator for that story, which also was not Tassie. In a perfect world, a talented writer can do both things. While I think Moore is a talented writer, I think she got a little off track with this novel.