Colleen O'Neill Conlan's Reviews > A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
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's review
Aug 28, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: novels
Read in August, 2012

The plot follows 20-year-old Tassie from her home in the midwest to her college, also in the midwest, in the couple years following 9/11 and the resulting "war on terror." A good chunk of the book focuses on Tassie's childcare job that begins even before the child arrives in the Brinks-Thornwood household, via adoption. She accompanies the adoptive mother (and father, when he can make it) to meet with various people - birth mom, foster family, adoption center personnel - on the way to bringing home Mary/Mary Emma/Emmie. From the start, she seems an integral part of the family dynamic, and a bit of a confidante to Sarah, the adoptive mom. Tricky territory for a young woman of twenty.

A theme that runs through this section is of racial identity and racism. Little Emmie is a biracial child, and when a jerk of a young guy yells out "the n-word" and Tassie reports this to Sarah, she immediately organizes a support group at her home for mixed race families in their small, liberal city, both adoptive and biological. I got a real kick out out of these Wednesday night sessions, which Tassie overhears while tending all the children upstairs. It's a running non-dialogue of almost every aspect of living in a transracial family, or I should say, a middle-class transracial family, as they all seem to be rather well-to-do, sipping wine and sampling Sarah's delicacies. Many funny and not-so-funny observations and quips, though there is no action taken or resolution found in these meetings.

A side story involves Tassie's relationship with a fellow student from college, Reynaldo. She loves him and declares it often, though it is one-sided. There is a minor plot point involving his taking pictures of Emmie that seems almost ominous, but actually goes nowhere. And another, potentially threatening plot turn with Reynaldo when a part of his character is revealed, but again, nothing really comes of it.

I guess this is where my slight dissatisfaction comes from, these pieces that seem important, but sputter out. Characters fall out of the novel completely once they have served their purpose, even characters central to the narrative and central, for most of this book, to Tassie's daily life. I waited in vain for some sort of reappearance. Perhaps, given the circumstances of the story, this kind of disappearance would make every bit of sense in real life, but I suppose I was wanting more from it as literature. Another thing is that this unfolds during the early days of our wars with Iraq and Afganistan. This fact flits in and out of the book only lightly. The bright, seemingly liberal family Tassie is involved with don't speak of it, and there is no mention of any campus protests until seven pages before the book ends, and only after there has been more personal repercussions from the war. It almost seemed inserted rather than organically part of the story.

But beyond that, the book is a pleasure to read. The writing is so, so good, and the Tassie and Sarah characters are particularly well-developed. This life-long New Englander got a good sense of what the midwest is like, how they speak and how they consider things, or at least through Tassie's eyes. The book explores themes of race, class, privilege, and parenthood, and looks at directionless youth (Tassie's brother joins the military to avoid going to truck-driving school, and even Tassie chooses mostly strange electives for her classes: wine tasting, war movie soundtracks, some kind of yoga class called The Neutral Pelvis). There is a harrowing backstory that changes things for the Brinks-Thornwoodfamily and Tassie in a huge way. And despite being a basically unlikeable person, I loved the Sarah character. She is a piece of work, a transplanted midwesterner with a back-East mindset and history. A smart, judgmental over-thinker, she owns a high-end restaurant. Here's a little gem, after she hears Tassie singing "I Been Working on the Railroad" with little Emmie. Sarah says, "There's just two things I'm worried about with that: the grammar and the use of slave labor [...] Correct subject-verb agreement is best when children are learning language, so be careful what you sing. It's an issue when raising kids of color. A simple grammatical matter can hold them back in life. Down the road. [...] We are pioneers. We are doing something important, unprecedented, and unbearably hard." Gotta love it! Oh Sarah, it only gets unbearably harder.

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