A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore [Review]

A Gate at the Stairs Book

In the past month, I’ve read countless reviews that sing the praises of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. Some call it a fantastic coming-of-age story, while others say that the narrator’s wit made them laugh. Now that I’ve read the book, I have to say that I just don’t get it. Unfortunately, all the quirky characters and various storylines just couldn’t keep me interested.

The story is narrated by Tassie, a college student from a small farming town in Wisconsin, and her observations about the world around her make up the bulk of the novel. She seems to be perpetually awed by the liberal college town where she now lives (apparently they don’t have Chinese restaurants where she’s from). Tassie decides to get a part-time job and ends up working as a nanny for Sarah and Edward, a yuppie-ish couple in their 40s who are adopting a biracial baby. Sarah is the neurotic proprietor of a French restaurant and seems to desperately want a baby, despite her husband’s disinterest. In some of the novel’s most awkward moments, Tassie accompanies Sarah to meet with potential birthmothers. Sarah tends to stick her foot in her mouth as she tries to fill the silence with nervous chatter. Since the setting is shortly after 9/11, there is also a subplot involving Tassie’s brother joining the military.

I trudged through the meandering story and was disappointed to find that I just couldn’t get into it. The parts that were supposed to be funny just didn’t appeal to my sense of humor at all – they made me cringe more than anything. Case in point, when Tassie stirs her chocolate milk with her roommate’s vibrator, I guess it’s supposed to be funny but just thought it was lame. Ditto for the part where she runs around in a hawk costume to scare away mice from the farm.

I can appreciate Moore’s unique writing style and fondness for puns. Sarah’s restaurant is described as “one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entrée freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollock, filets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies…” She also makes some snarky but accurate observations about the self-congratulatory adoptive parents who attend her support group for “transracial, biracial, multiracial families.” I appreciate all this, I just could have done with less of it.

Judging from other reviews, I might be the only one who’s not crazy about A Gate at the Stairs. Perhaps, since I’m not familiar with Moore, I should have started with some of her previous works. I’m sure this is a must read for all her fans but I can’t count myself among them just yet.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars | Publisher: Knopf | Pages: 336 | Buy on Amazon

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