American author Lorrie Moore has earned an enthusiastic following primarily for her short stories, which have appeared in many well-respected periodicals, as well as in three collections: Self-Help (1985), Like Life (1990), and especially the highly acclaimed Birds of America (1998). Her novels, Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), were also well received by critics and readers alike. Though Moore has never been considered a particularly prolific writer, the gap of eleven years between her previous book and this one was unusually long, so the novel A Gate at the Stairs was a source of much speculation in literary circles before its release. Most reviewers of the book commented on this fact, introducing the novel with phrases such as “much-anticipated” or “long-awaited.” The waiting ended with a novel whose plot, characters, and themes are as rich and complex as any the author has produced before.
A Gate at the Stairs is set mostly in the fictional town of Troy, Wisconsin, which most readers interpret as a thinly disguised version of Madison, where Moore has lived and taught at the university since 1984. Moore has written in the past about Americans displaced within their own country, often serving as keen, if somewhat bemused, observers of the new places in which they find themselves. Perhaps never before, though, has setting been so important to one of her novels or stories. In this book, the Midwest itselfwith its unique weather, cuisine, and social distinctionsbecomes a character in itself.
In addition, the looming presence of the university allows Moore to unleash her wit on some of the more egregious pretensions of academic culture and the politically correct liberalism it often spawns. Students take classes in wine tasting, study soundtracks to war movies, and attend a cross-listed humanities and Pilates class called “The Perverse Body/The Neutral Pelvis.” Meanwhile, when racist comments are directed at a biracial child, her parents “fight back” by forming a support group that talks in endless circles and accomplishes nothing.
The narrator of the novel is Tassie Ketljin, a twenty-year-old university student who, as the novel opens, is seeking part-time work as a nanny to help pay her college expenses. The young woman is a bundle of contradictions: both proud and ashamed of her background as a farmer’s child; thrilled by the life of the mind she discovers at the university, while directionless in her studies and lacking any serious ambition for her future; sexually and emotionally inexperienced, though quite unaware of her own naïveté; sometimes startlingly sophisticated in her understanding of situations and people but just as frequently caught off guard when she fails to comprehend the complexities of life that surround. As readers are introduced to Tassie and her idiosyncratic perspective, these internal contradictions in the narrator create a fun, playful air. Tassie is at first both trusting and self-absorbed, hallmarks of her youth and inexperience, but she loses a bit of both qualities as the novel progresses.
With her previous work, Moore became known for her quirky, self-contradictory characters, so the narrator of this novel will perhaps have a familiar feel. In fact, most of the characters in A Gate at the Stairs, even the minor ones, are drawn with an understanding that such complexities are both realist and compelling to readers. If a complaint about Moore’s characterization can be offered, it is that the characters in this novel, for all their individuality, are almost without exception witty, cerebral, and borderline unbelievable in their sharp, playful ability with the English language. In this way, they perhaps mirror a little too closely their linguistically masterful creator, whose lapidary prose has long enchanted her fans. Tassie herself is given to verbal acrobatics that sometimes take on a life of their own, diverting the novel from its plot for paragraphs at a time.
Among the novel’s other fascinating characters are Sarah Brink and Edward Thornwood, the middle-aged couple who hire Tassie as a...
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