Review: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore's newest novel, the first that I have read, wasn't as wonderful as I had hoped it would be.

The novel follows a year in the life of Tassie Kjeltin, the daughter of a Wisconsin potato farmer who is in her freshman year of college a few months after the attacks on 9/11. She seeks employment and finds it, becoming a nanny for the Brink-Thornwoods who are adopting a child and want her to be a part of the process. The first child doesn't go well, but they finally find a match with a young mixed race girl named Mary, who the mother dubs Emma and soon becomes Mary-Emma, or Emmie.  Tassie becomes deeply involved in the life of the child, the politics of the parents, and the strange mystery of their past.  A romance develops with a fellow student, who also is strangely mysterious, and her brother, Robert, has decided to join the military.  To round out the cast is her aloof roommate, Murph.

This novel left me cold.  I found that I often could not get into the characters and there seemed a constant disconnectedness with the character's emotions.  With very little conflict in the novel, it merely seems like a year in the life of a college student.  The apathy the character displays towards nearly everything, with perhaps the exception of her brother, makes it difficult to really climb into her story.  Some points were very well written, and I found myself in love with the language, but very often, the narration slips into an almost comatose rambling that made me often want to scream "Get on with it", since none of it seemed overly important.

There seemed to be little character development, though the most interesting character was the mother herself, Sarah Thornwood-Brink, who has secrets in her past.  A restaurant owner, she and her husband Edward, are nearing middle age and want a child, and look to adopt.  But even she seems obsessed with her own snobbery as a restaurant owner and is difficult to connect to as a character.

The most memorable part of the novel for me was a funeral, where Tassie climbs into the casket and describes the smell of the body as "a chemical one, like the field fertilizer used by the agrabiz farms"  (298). The body in the case isn't buried whole, one hand left behind, unable to be retrieved, and is stuffed with cardboard and newspaper and legless.  The image is disturbing, but also one of sadness and loss.  I only wish the connection to the deceased had been greater in the novel during life.

Altogether, I felt that this novel was a bit disappointing.  I had been introduced to the novel through the short story discussion group that I help run in Second Life.  The story that we gleaned from the recent pages of the New Yorker, called "Childcare", received a decent response, and so I had hopes for this novel, which I received as a Christmas present.  The best part of this novel for me was the thought of the friend who sent it to me.  Because of that, I will always cherish this novel, though I doubt I will read it again.

On to Confederates by Thomas Keneally!