K's Reviews > A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
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's review
Apr 14, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: audiobooks, intense-sad-dark-or-bleak, should-ve-been-shorter
Recommended to K by: marg
Recommended for: fans of "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld

So when you’re listening to an audiobook and you find yourself rolling your eyes and wishing the reader would just SHUT UP already, is that because it’s an audiobook or because the book is just not that great? As I listened to “A Gate at the Stairs” I kept wondering, if I were visually reading (or skimming, something that’s unfortunately not possible with an audiobook) this meandering prose with its similes on top of similes and random free association, would I be reacting this strongly? So take this review with a grain of salt, but I was not much of a fan of this book.

Tassie, the main character of “A Gate at the Stairs,” is a college student who takes a babysitting job. The book ostensibly focuses on Tassie’s developing relationship with her employers, Sarah and Edward (a couple with a terribly dark secret, it turns out), and their soon-to-be-adopted biracial toddler, Mary Emma. There is a very long build-up to Tassie’s actually beginning the job, though, and an even longer and mostly unrelated denouement after the job ends. As a result, while the babysitting job appears to be intended as the book’s main focus, it doesn’t always feel that way which is a bit confusing.

This confusion about what the book is really about is compounded by the fact that the book also covers Tassie’s farm-girl background and subsequent adjustment to college (where she takes courses like Wine Tasting 101 and Soundtracks to War Movies – come on; I’m all for satirizing a liberal arts education but this is just a bit over the top), her disengaged family and the many details of her vacation time with them, her first boyfriend (who turns out to be something shockingly other than what he seems, a development which struck me as completely arbitrary and unnecessary), her reaction (and America’s) to 9/11, the support group her employers form for interracial families (including endless passages of the group’s quoted dialogue), her brother’s ill-fated enlistment in the army, and much else.

And when in doubt, there’s always Tassie’s stream of consciousness to fill pages and pages as she free-associates to the most random of stimuli: “’That’s a crock,’ said so-and-so. I’ve seen crocks, I thought. In the barn. They were cracked. Some of them were white and dirty.” Not an exact quote, but pretty close. This type of thing got old fast, which unfortunately didn’t stop Lorrie Moore from doing this over and over.

Tassie reminded me very much of Prep’s Lee Fiora. When I read Prep, I started out liking Lee Fiora and resonating with her layers of insecurity and endless examination of herself and her social world. Eventually, though, I grew disenchanted with Lee’s excessive self-absorption and navel contemplation, tendencies I immediately recognized in Tassie and didn’t even enjoy initially.

There were also some plot holes. If Sarah was so willing, even to the point of enthusiasm, to adopt a biracial child, why did the agency first match her up with a white one? Wouldn’t they save the harder-to-find white adoptee for one of the many couples who insisted on whiteness exclusively? And as another reviewer pointed out, does it make sense that Tassie, a presumably normal college student, would only have one friend throughout the entire book?

In fairness to Lorrie Moore, there was some good writing in this book and there were times when I felt she really captured what it must have been like to be in Tassie’s shoes at a particular moment, or how an interaction might have truly hung in the air awkwardly, or what have you. I might even be willing to try a different book of hers, because for all my criticism I do see talent here and lots of goodreaders raved about her other writing. Unfortunately, in this book at least, Lorrie often got so carried away with her own poetry as well as with following the train of Tassie’s rambling internal dialogue that she seemed to forget that she was supposed to be writing a novel. She also seemed to stick in every possible theme and situation that crossed her mind as opposed to selecting the few that spoke to her most deeply and developing those to the fullest. This novel tried to do too much and ended up not even fulfilling a novel’s most basic goal – that of just giving the reader a good story.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by astried (new)

astried It is a bit tricky with Audiobook. My first criteria for listening is that I like the reader. I can't stand even the best of story read by someone whose sound I don't like. In my experience audiobook makes me tolerate boring description etc. more. I usually do something else besides listening and simply phase out on boring places. The best example of this is when I was listening to Twilight. I doubt I could ever read it, but by listening I just catch the general mood and twist of the story and blocked out the rest. I only did some fast forward at the last book because I simply couldn't stand hearing it. So I would say audiobook is not ideal for books that you really want to enjoy, but great for those you just want to skim around.

message 2: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Very interesting. This is my first experience with audiobooks, and I can relate to what you're saying. I actually did like the reader, but what got to me was the book's meandering. Whereas it's easy to skim when you're reading visually, skimming isn't really practical when you're listening -- how will you know when you reach a part that you do want to focus on? Feeling forced to listen to painfully detailed passages that I ordinarily would have preferred to skim or skip was an annoying aspect of listening to a book as opposed to reading it.

I did enjoy the fact that the audiobook allowed me to multi-task, which made the boring parts a bit more tolerable as you're saying. I also really appreciated the fact that, instead of having to choose between reading and housework, suddenly I could do both. And in fact, doing housework gave me an excuse to turn on the audiobook, so happily I was far more motivated than usual to attack the mountains of dishes and laundry! In that way, listening to a book has a lot of advantages over reading it visually.

I agree that audiobooks are probably best for reading books that don't demand your full attention. I don't think I could have enjoyed a classic, or demanding non-fiction book, by listening to it. But for easier novels, it can be a great choice. Living here in Israel where the English books I want to read are often either terribly expensive or not even accessible, the fact that I can download a wide selection of audiobooks for free from my U.S. public library is a huge deal, and one which I plan to take advantage of more often.

message 3: by Trice (new)

Trice Hi Khaya,
re: access to English books, I have the same problem, although I didn't know about free audio download - going to check my US library to see if they do that too. If you want to buy books, you might check out the Book Depository which ships for free all over the world. They also have some free e-versions of books you can read on your computer. Someone told me about them recently and I got very excited -- the bookstore near me sells its small selection of English paperbacks for at least $18.

message 4: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Thanks so much, Trice! I do hope your U.S. library has audiobooks for download. I use the Brooklyn Public Library, which has many books available for loan as downloadable audio files. After two weeks, the files are removed from your computer but you can always check them out again if you haven't finished listening to them. I needed to download their software so that I could download the books, but it was really no big deal (even for a technophobe like me!). I really appreciate the Book Depository link and I will definitely check it out.

message 5: by Trice (new)

Trice Thank you thank you thank you!! my library has both audio books and eRead versions of books - I did not know! they don't have everything, but it certainly makes some of my reading here more cost efficient :)

message 6: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Yes! I'm so happy to hear that that worked out for you! As one overseas person to another, I know how great that is.

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