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A Gate at the Stairs

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Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction
Chosen as a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Kansas City Star, Financial Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Real Simple

Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gentleman farmer, has come to a university town as a student. When she takes a job as a part-time nanny for a mysterious and glamorous family, she finds herself drawn deeper into their world and forever changed. Told through the eyes of this memorable narrator, A Gate at the Stairs is a piercing novel of race, class, love, and war in America.




From the Trade Paperback edition.

338 pages, Kindle Edition

First published September 1, 2009

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About the author

Lorrie Moore

67 books1,964 followers
LORRIE MOORE is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. She is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation fellowship, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award for her achievement in the short story. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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5 stars
1,925 (10%)
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4,873 (27%)
3 stars
6,252 (35%)
2 stars
3,325 (18%)
1 star
1,274 (7%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,332 reviews
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews656 followers
May 19, 2014
It has been a long time since I disliked a book this much. There was a moment on Sunday when the urge to throw it across the room and be done with it forever was so strong I had to clench my hands around the spine to keep myself from doing it. This was made more imperative by the fact that I was standing outside in a bus terminal at the time, and this was a library book.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for B the BookAddict.
300 reviews650 followers
March 23, 2016
A Gate at the Stairs is The new York Times' One Of The Best Books Of The Year winners as well as various other literary awards and nominations.

I'd liken Lorrie Moore to a cross between Zoë Heller and Lionel Shriver; this novel is insightful, comic, thought-provoking and tragic; beautifully rendered with some gorgeous turn of phrase.

Tassie is a wonderfully touching character you come to love and admire; she's a twenty year old who, while being somewhat naive with guys, is also surprisingly mature about life. The story in a nutshell: Tassie moves from the family farm into Troy to attend college and gets herself a part-time job as a nanny to Mary-Emma, for Sarah and Edward. There's some real tragedy here including Tassie's brother's very short deployment to Afghanistan and Mary-Emma's adoption but also some beautifully warm moments; Tassie's relationship with her father and with Mary-Emma. My favorite part is Tassie donning her bird costume to scare the mice from her father's crops.

I like the review of O, The Oprah Magazine which says "A miracle of lyric force, beautiful and beautifully constucted, with a comic touch that transforms itself to a kind of harrowing precision".

I am so impressed with Martin's work. My one criticism; not long enough, I could have easily read another 150 pages of this exceptional novel. 4★

Profile Image for Katie.
257 reviews327 followers
May 19, 2021
On the evidence of this book Lorrie Moore is a much better sentence writer than she is a novelist or a storyteller. Essentially this read like the diary of a country girl uprooted to a hip college town with three dramatic events forcibly shoehorned in to give it some dramatic foundation. Each of these three events, which I can't give away without spoiling what little plot there is, possess a one in a five million chance of happening in the life of an individual; that all three happen to our narrator seemed little short of science fiction. Our narcissistic narrator with her faux scattiness, her satirical Sylvia Plath acolyte persona though is presented as a magnet for life altering events. An example I can give of the clumsy artistry of this novel is when the narrator's employer asks her to look after a poisonous concoction she has made to remove stains. Why she has made this is a mystery. And there's no reason on earth why she needs to remove this concoction from her own freezer and give it to our narrator to put in her freezer. Knowing how dipsy our narrator is (ironically if she was really so dipsy and inattentive she wouldn't have been able to write this narrative which showcases how attentive she is to everything happening around her) we know she will omit to tell her flatmate about the gunge. As a piece of dramatic foreshadowing it's predictable and hammy. The poisoning of her flatmate doesn't even serve a purpose in the book. It's another disconnected comic anecdote of which there are many. Like our narrator, as a grown woman, dressing up in a bird costume to run in front of her father's tractor to warn the mice; or her climbing into a coffin with the corpse and staying there while it is carried to the cemetery. Our narrator though loves resorting to the attention seeking theatre of a child. Her problem is she can't grow up.

Its most interesting aspect is its criticism of white liberal America. The problem here is that better the well-intentioned blunders and shortcomings of white liberal America than the smug satirical nihilism of the narrator. I will give kudos to Lorrie Moore for creating such an obnoxious narcissistic narrator, except I'm not sure this was her intention. When she turns down a date with the creepy husband of her employer at the end I think you're supposed to feel she has achieved maturity but my feeling was the pair deserved each other and would make a good match. On the plus side there were lots of great sentences. It's interesting to learn she seems to favour short stories as I can imagine her being much better suited to this form. As a novelist I'm afraid I found her essentially ham-fisted and irritating.
33 reviews
December 4, 2009
The end sequence took hold of me. One hundred pages into it, I hated this book. The last twenty pages actually seemed like something that might happen, and it resonnated with somethings happening in my life. Moore is out of her league her, writing about things that she does not know. Loorie Moore is 52. She has not been an undergraduate in college for 30 years and it showed in this book. When she used the band name Modest Mouse, it sounded clunky, fake, phony as my good friend Holden might say. I'm reminded of Charlotte Simmons (this was the first Tom Wolfe book I ever read and I will never read it again. It was insulting). On top of her inability to live the life of a 20-21 year old college student, she tries to tackle every topic out there. She passes over September 11th with a crude joke. Having lived in DC at the time, and being in college myself, I can say that I and my fellow classmates did not think it was very funny. I'm not sure anybody did. Scared as hell. Yes. Then, she has her protagonist in her German high school class drawing pictures of Hitler and panzer tanks (she seems to hark back to the Nazi era "You may not be old enough, but you'll come to realize that the Nazis always win".) What high school teacher lets that stuff fly? The older generation should know that they have no idea what happens in college these days, admit that they don’t understand the humor, the nuance. I’m not at all stating that its sophisticated in every aspect, or that there aren’t shallow and idiotic individuals, but Moore and Wolfe just don’t get it.

The narrative was all over the place. The characters were unbelievable. The attempt at half-noir failed. I received an email from a proprietor of a bookstore claiming that this book was by far the best of the year. He obviously hasn’t read anything else or is looking at this thing as the absurd.
Profile Image for Josh Ang.
502 reviews12 followers
April 7, 2012
The problem with this book is that it has no centre. Moore can't decide if she wants it to be about the travails of 20-year-old Tassie who grapples with being a country girl thrown into the big city campus (alarm bells rang in my head at the pointedness of making her half-Jewish as well) or about the 40- something chef Sarah, with a mysterious past and who adopts a little girl of mixed race parentage.



For a large part of the story, Sarah looms uncertainly as a close-to-central character, likeable in a loopy kind of way as she faces the big bad world of adoption protocols. But in the latter part of the novel, she disappears without a trace when some trouble arises regarding custody of her adopted daughter.



Lest it be said that this novel is without a theme, Moore inserts interracial issues into the plot, albeit in a half-hearted fashion. These are dealt with in the weekly meetings that Sarah organizes in her home with racially-blended families who are grappling with the same issues of raising adopted kids. Like the reader, Tassie half-listens to the bits of arguments that float up the stairs into the children's room where she is babysitting the kid of these parents, occasionally scandalized and horrified by some of the more interesting nuggets randomly conjured up.



Throw in Tassie's heady and unsteady relationship with a would-be-Brazilian classmate with a tell-tale prayer mat in his room and we have an over-deliberate attempt to draw a parallel between Sarah and her baby Mary Emma (or Emmie from her initials) on the one hand and Tassie and Reynaldo on the other and to exoticize the story.



Occasionally funny, and with truly tragic bits that tug at the heartstrings (Sarah and her husband Edward's backstory about a bad parenting decision gone wrong still haunts me), the novel, however, is smaller than the sum of its parts.



Tassie goes through her experiences more as an observer than a participant and one can't help feeling that she is a little disengaged even when she tries to explain her bond to the little Emmie and her employers.



Even when she deals with a family loss, there is a sense Tassie goes through the mourning in a robotic must-feel-numb fashion. Part of the problem is that Moore does not quite get under the skin of a 20-year-old who is also a sometime guitarist. This musical aspect of her character seems to be more a stereotype rather than a defining character trait, and the clumsy references to it fails to give Tassie the person any more shape.



Coming from an author who has churned out genre-defining short story collections like "Self-Help" and the brilliant "Birds of America", I can't help but feel a little shortchanged by this novel.

Profile Image for Katy.
40 reviews
September 14, 2009
Some reviewers are responding to this novel much as I expected: "Moore is too clever by half, the voice of her narrator is too mature, the plot is unbelievable." My response is that she IS too clever by half, and -- so what? The narrator has the voice of a 50-ish academic professor because that is who is speaking ; she makes references to "later I would find out," or "another boyfriend would later tell me." As for the plot and its spotty verisimilitude, I would suggest that reviewers who suggest as much may not have grown up as a girl in the Midwest. Trust me, it's perfectly plausible to be directly affected by war overseas, become infatuated with swarthy, secretive lovers who are wholly inappropriate for you, nanny for white-liberal zealots with questionable backgrounds and/or ethics -- all during one's sophomore year! -- and view it all with a preternaturally wise, wry eye. In addition, her passages on the weather and the natural world are astoundingly poetic, her take on the harm done by passive complicity to gendered authority, the bizarreness of government and law over-ruling love and nature and family and motherhood are all pretty eloquent.
Profile Image for Ravi Jain.
49 reviews1 follower
October 8, 2013
I came to this novel with great expectations, considering the praise heaped on it (dozens of top 10 and bestseller lists). And indeed from the first few sentences you had the feeling you were in the hands of a sure, masterful storyteller. But over the course of the novel it unraveled and became an inchoate mix of sophomoric polemic, coming-of-age story, carictaurish depictions of terrorists, and clever wordplay.

The story's vehicle is Tassie, a 20-yr old college freshman who becomes a nanny for a wealthy, over-educated, white liberal couple who adopt an infant girl who is part African-American. It is best when it takes us on the journey of an open adoption, that too in a situation where the complication is not only the class and race issues of this particular adoption but the conflicts and emotional fractures of the adopting parents. The adoption story is in fact where the novel's heart lies, and where it is not only sweet and funny but heartbreakingly sad; the latter so much so that I had to put the put book aside at times. Along the way we get lots of biting comments on the class and social differences between the liberal college town where Tassie goes to school and her country roots.

However all this gets buried in extraneous sub-plots: Tassie's infatuation with a classmate (wont give the spoiler here), her brother Robert's aimless stumbling into volunteering for duty in Afghanistan, and her ambivalent relationships with her parents. The worst sections are pages and pages where the politics of interracial adoption are debated by a group of parents whom Tassie listens to while babysitting -- a clumsy and transparent device for directly inserting polemic and social commentary into the novel without bothering to give them the clothing of character and plot. The continual wordplay by Tasie, her room-mate Murph, her brother and her father are wearing. Finally, like so many contemporary novels, the male characters are the worst and receive no compassion - the confused brother, the vain and selfish husband, the hopeless boyfriend, and so on.

All in all, disappointing and not worth the effort.
Profile Image for E.J..
Author 5 books16 followers
February 5, 2010
Try angsty, "atmospheric", and utterly self-indulgent, never mind the fact that it's too obvious that her editor must be illiterate. Either that or she knows someone or is related to someone to get this kind of bottom-of-the-pit novel published by a major publishing house.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,493 followers
July 2, 2015
Lorrie Moore takes on a lot – possibly too much – in her third novel: race, class, war and post-9/11 anxiety. But her sharp eye, beautifully attuned ear for language and wry sense of humour help the novel over even its roughest patches.

It’s the coming of age story of Midwestern college student Tassie Keltjin, who in the fall of 2001 takes on a part-time job as a nanny to help pay for school. Her employers are the 40-ish Sarah Brink, the liberal, highly strung chef and owner of a high-end French restaurant, and her mostly absent husband Edward, who’s got a wicked silvery hairdo and a roving eye. Then there’s their newly adopted African-American toddler Mary Emma, nicknamed Emmie (to stand for M.E.).

Of course something significant happened in September 2011, but it’s referred to obliquely, and has ramifications in Tassie’s younger brother going to war and in one other plot point I won’t mention. I’ll just say that a feeling of unease and restlessness settles over most of the book – just think of the thin protection suggested by the title.

Emmie’s biracial background allows Moore to riff a lot on race, especially in a series of meetings in which parents of non-Caucasian children get to vent their frustrations once a week. There’s clever, smart writing in these scenes, but they’re also repetitive and monotonous.

Moore has some problems with pacing and plot. A character can't pass a flower without describing it. And the author can’t resist a play on a word, or some aren’t-I-so-brilliant observation - coming out of anyone's mouth. Tassie’s insights seem much more mature and worldly than that of a college-age woman who was raised on a farm – and if Moore intends the narrative to be from a woman looking back on her life (which would explain the maturity) it’s not always successful.

But line by line she is such a good writer, and there are images in the book of startling, haunting clarity and power. In her short stories, Moore’s always been able to find the humour in pain and heartbreak, and she does so again here, except on a larger and more ambitious canvas.
Profile Image for Jennie.
623 reviews39 followers
September 24, 2010
I absolutely can not abide fiction that is meant to be realistic and then is written in a way that does not accurately reflect any kind of reality. Another reviewer on here mentioned that Moore is out of her league and is writing about being a grad student, something she clearly knows nothing about. I couldn't agree more.

After reading a slew of terrible pop fiction I have decided to institute a 50 pages or 3 strikes rule before I quit a novel. Usually there are warning signs very early on that inspire me to toss the book aside but I ignore them and soldier on. No more.

Strike 1: The main character's roommate passes her old vibrator on to her when she starts dating. Under no circumstances would this EVER happen.

Strike 2: The main character does not use the vibrator. nstead she leaves it sitting on the counter where she occasionally uses it to STIR HER CHOCOLATE MILK.

Strike 3: A pregnant teenage tosses a grown woman (who wants to adopt her unborn child) a wrapped pat of butter at a restaurant and jokes, "I got you a gift too and its wrapped." The woman procedes to unwrap the butter and spread it on her lips while remarking that it will keep her lips from getting chapped.

Stop, just stop.
Profile Image for Amber.
42 reviews6 followers
August 28, 2009
I love Lorrie Moore's writing. I love it so much that I spent my college years ripping her off (well, trying to anyway) in fiction writing workshops. Her short story collections rank high among my favorite books. But I've never fallen in love with any of her novels in the same way. All of those wonderful little moments of wry humor amidst sadness are there, but the structure of it just doesn't quite work for me. There's a bit with a college boyfriend who isn't what he appears that gets handled in a way that left me cringing. The couple Tassie's babysitting for, who also aren't what they appear, didn't quite ring true to me either. I still tore through it, and I still had those moments where I set the book down for a second because my breath was taken away, and that's tough to come by. I still love Moore's writing, but I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed in this novel.
Profile Image for Ed.
569 reviews71 followers
March 25, 2010
I picked up Lorrie Moore's "A Gate At The Stairs" based on the many appearances it made on the best-of/year-end book lists for 2009. Although, while I do my best to avoid reading reviews beforehand, I couldn't help but notice the star-ratings were pretty muddy on it.

While the book was readable, I felt there was just always something very odd/off about it. Some books you know are great from the first page (or even sentence!), but "Gate" had me still hanging when I sat down to finish it. Even with 30-40 pages left, I thought the book at the potential for an "Aha! That's brilliant!" moment/ending, but ultimately I compared it to a collapsed souffle.

There's just too much thrown in here (and again, very (very!) odd stuff) that just isn't sufficiently dealt with. I know real life doesn't always provide closure - people come and go, weird things happen - but in a fictional world, I generally like it all to make more sense. This is a coming-of-age story, a post-9/11 tale, an adoption plot worthy of a Lifetime movie, mysterious pasts, a family comedy, a family tragedy, a romance, a commentary on race... and toss in a potato-farming father, a half-Jewish mother, Midwestern college courses in wine-tasting and war movie soundtracks (?!?), a Brazilian Muslim boyfriend, gourmet French food and a narrator with a knack for going off on the slightest tangent that can last for pages, and well it was all kind of a mess for me.

Moore seems to have her fans and a fine reputation and I'd give the writing in this one a good 3.5/4 stars. Parts of it were quite good, but as a whole it was quite a disappointment.
Profile Image for Barbara H.
679 reviews
April 4, 2011
I was eager to read this book, especially because I have heard and read such special things about Lorrie Moore. I came to the conclusion that I really did not enjoy this, but I am hesitant to give it less than 3 stars.

Moore has presented us with a coming of age story about a young lady, Tassie, from the mid-west who has entered a small undistinguished college a few hours from her home. There were amusing moments, there were scenes of passionate sex and even a finely described dining scene. Overall,the narration felt flat, dull and mostly aimless to me. There were a few exceptions that seemed to stand out. Tassie was engaged as the nanny to a bi-racial little girl. The interactions and the love between these two characters was a delight- joyful, almost palpable. The parents' self-involvement and shallow relationship with each other and people around them were difficult to absorb. Tassie, herself is a solitary, introspective person. Her own family seems remote, with the exception of her younger brother. Here we find again a softening and some pleasure in the characterization of Tassie.

Perhaps I do not find this maturing- to- adulthood type of novel appealing, but I sense that this is not the reason for my lack of enjoyment. The narration seemed to meander, or just when it seemed ready to flesh out, it fell away to a void.

I will read this author again at some point because I did feel the ability in her writing with some of her descriptive passages.
Profile Image for Patricia Murphy.
Author 3 books106 followers
March 14, 2012
I love Lorrie Moore. And I liked this book. But I was talking to a writer-friend of mine, someone who has published & edited more books than most people have read, and I told him that when I got to page 200 or so of this book it "jumped the shark." He asked, "What does that mean?" and I said "I have no idea." Luckily John was in the next room and explained, "It refers to a Happy Days episode where Fonzie water skis over a shark." There. It's true. There are several sections of dialogue in the center that are quite like the Fonz on water skis.

And the scene of Reynaldo in his barren apartment reminds me of scenes from two other books: Nick Flynn's Suck City and Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Oh, and also the end of the movie St. Elmo's Fire with Demi Moore and Rob Lowe snuggling on the mattress. But here it has, oh, I don't know, a jihad flair. I wasn't convinced.

I also said to my writer-friend that the reason I liked this book in particular and Moore in general is because she keeps writing sentences I wish I had written. Like many times per page. And it's true here. But sometimes the dialogue sang the same high note so often it seemed the singer might have no lower register. I enjoyed the complex plot, the smart narrator, and of course my favorite moment, perhaps representative of why I love LM, when the 20 year old narrator imagines: "What if Sylvia Plath had married Langston Hughes." I've read reviews saying 20 year olds don't think that way. But I did at 20, and I still do at 40, and I believed this narrator most of the way around.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
679 reviews32 followers
November 8, 2009
I so wanted to love this book, but....I just don't think it worked. I love Lorrie Moore and was so excited to see that she had a new novel. And the reviews! They have been great. But for me, the whole thing was a mess.

The core story, in which a white family adopts a biracial baby, has potential. But the story is narrated not by anyone in that family, but, rather, by a college student who becomes their nanny. Not only was this character's voice not particularly authentic, but I couldn't figure out why she was the centerpiece. Furthermore, the twists and turns in this story are not-at-all believable.

It seems that Moore wanted this book to say something big about America after 9-11. There are numerous bizarre subplots -- e.g. the nanny's brother goes off to war, and the nanny becomes involved with someone who is not as he seems -- which could have been short stories rather than components of this novel. Perhaps the disconnected feeling I had while reading was what the author intended, but still, it was a disappointing book.
Profile Image for julieta.
1,098 reviews17k followers
February 1, 2020
I can´t believe how bad this book is. I had read Who will run the frog hospital, which I loved, and then I read this!! In it she goes through so many themes, all of them handled in just the worst way possible. 9/11, she actually has a character who is supposedly brazilian and then turns out to be a muslim, their are interracial troubles, racism, war. And everything while trying to be smart and funny, which was worse, because you read that in her sentences. It´s really bad. It made me think of a clumsy cousin who throws jokes around all the time without ever being actually funny.
Profile Image for Dori Ostermiller.
Author 1 book47 followers
April 1, 2011
I am a huge Lorrie Moore fan and gobble up everything she publishes, so I picked up this book with great anticipation. Moore is one of the most witty, entertaining and insightful prose stylists we have in contemporary fiction. She is also sharply observant of cultural insanities and inconsistencies. I loved the beginning of this novel! But about 2/3 of the way through, when the plot went haywire, I felt puzzled and disappointed. It felt like Moore didn't know how to shape this story and so started to throw in bizarre plot twists of the melodramatic variety (not her usual style!), literally one after another... When the story tried to come to a climax with the tragic death of a minor, completely undeveloped character who we had barely seen up to that point, I stopped caring and began to skim the book just to be done. Birds of America and Frog Hospital were masterpieces: I'm really surprised by this novel's lack of a meaningful, cohesive structure and truly puzzled by the critical accolades it received, from the Times and others... Sadly, it makes me cynical about the industry...
Profile Image for Sarah.
15 reviews
September 13, 2009
I was surprised that I didn't much care for this book, as I love Moore's short stories. Also, I read a galley of it, so I'm not sure how much I can really responsibly say about it. But! I'll continue anyway. "A Gate at the Stairs" to me felt messy, bloated, and full of superfluous descriptions and irritating puns and jokes. Maybe I'm still too close to being a college student myself to find it interesting or exciting to look at the world through the eyes of one, but I found Tassie difficult as a narrator and a protagonist, and while she was full of observations, I ended up wishing I found more of them useful. I found her annoying at more than a few turns. The post-9/11 aspect to the book, tied up in Tassie's already-unbelievable relationship with her newly acquired boyfriend Reynaldo, was both a little ludicrous and also kind of deadening. I know that one of the main themes of "A Gate at the Stairs" is "the carelessness perpetrated by others in the name of love," but I was left wondering what exactly to take away from the book. There are lovely moments of observation, and Moore's depictions of the attitudes of the affluent toward minorities and biracial children--seemingly gracious, feverishly intellectualized, yet absurdly, condescendingly detached, as if these liberal parents imagine themselves to be righteous crusaders for a cause they feel they are somehow entitled to defend--are spot-on. But they also present a lot of questions that neither Tassie nor Moore really get around to exploring more deeply. Racism in the disguise of altruism, adoption as fantasy, love and loss, the shock of intimacy and personal carelessness--intriguing issues all, and all of them surface at different points throughout "A Gate at the Stairs," but they're more like the backs of whales surfacing in the sea and then being submerged again. Not enough is said about them, strong enough connections aren't made, and in the end, these themes lay largely unexplored beneath a cluttered surface of jokes, fleeting extra characters, scenes of questionable use, and obscure metaphors. There were some things about this book that I really liked, and things that made me really uncomfortable, which I consider a good thing, but I was disappointed in the end.
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,395 followers
August 17, 2010
I hate this book, hate hate hate it, and I am going to stop reading now.
Profile Image for Chris.
67 reviews395 followers
September 11, 2009
Similar to my feelings on Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, Chronic City, I think there's a lot to like about this book and there's a lot to dislike about it. At one point I was sure I was going give it four or five stars and at another point I was convinced I was going to give it one or two stars. One minute I would roll my eyes and the next minute something would resonate with me so deeply that I'd forget what it was that had annoyed me the minute before.

Stuff that really clicked for me:

- The post-9/11 feeling of everything being frozen, from the town in which the story occurs to all of the characters' emotions, ideas, feelings, and abilities to make decisions.

- The toddler, Mary-Emma -- maybe it's because I have two little boys near her age, but I was emotionally invested in her story and really bought her as a living, breathing toddler. In fact, she might have been the most believable character in the entire book.

- The ways in which Moore compared and contrasted the behavior of adults with that of children. There's a big difference between adults who behave childishly and adults who have a child-like appreciation for the world. I also liked her exploration of the transition from childhood to adulthood through the narrator's story. For so many of us nowadays, that transition is supposed to occur while we are off at college. What do we really learn while we're there?

Stuff that didn't click for me:

- The excessive wordplay and puns. I know that this is Moore's MO and she's pretty good at it, but I just didn't buy how every character in the book had the same obsession with wordplay that Lorrie Moore has. It's kind of a nerdy obsession. In this book I thought it was overused and annoying.

- The racial stuff. This may have something to do with having lived my entire life in one of the most racially diverse areas in the country, but I was struggling with the book's obsession with race. I know enough people who grew up in lily-white towns and who have less-than-PC views on race to know that the racist behavior in this book does still occur, but I guess I was just bored with it. I also think that the reaction to this behavior, in the form of the Wednesday night sessions that the narrator listens in on, went on for far too long with page after page after page of these bitch sessions. But I guess it served its purpose in relation to adults acting like children.

- The major plot points. Without spoiling anything, I thought some of these events were emotionally manipulative or just plain silly.

Overall Conclusion:

Read this book and see for yourself whether or not you like it. Lorrie Moore is a huge talent who deserves to be widely read. It is without a doubt a Lorrie Moore novel. I just wonder if she should have spent the last 10(?) years working on a bunch of Lorrie Moore short stories.
Profile Image for christa.
745 reviews270 followers
January 11, 2010
Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" falls into that tricky category of just-North-of-good -- a gray area that I struggle to write reasonable sentences about. When it comes to me, a blank page and a blinking cursor, I prefer to hate something or want to roll naked in a meadow with it, rather than just thinking it is pretty good. Honestly, I've put off writing about this book for more than two weeks, letting it simmer, giving it far more consideration than 99 percent of the other books I read, hoping for some sort of sauce reduction that would leave behind a chunky stew of ideas instead of a soupy mess.

FACT: Not only do I love Lorrie Moore, I am -- according to cultural standards -- supposed to like Lorrie Moore by virtue of being a person who reads a lot of books and frequently constructs sentences. I think puns rule, I think she's quietly hilarious, and I think she has 20/20 vision when it comes to the details of the world. Get a load of this bit: "I sat in my apartment with the most inane sorts of magazines, all left there by Murph, which read with an avidity and dementia typically brought on by hair salons and winter."

RESPONSE: I swaddled this novel, loved it, caressed it, stared at the cover, traced the author's name with my finger like it was Braille or I was a stalker, read it slowly and thoughtfully.

This one is a year in the life of Tassie, a young college girl -- a farm girl suddenly exposed to Chinese food -- who is looking for a little reinvention and a part time job. She signs on to nanny for a couple that hasn't quite adopted yet, and is undergoing the final interview stages with various knocked-up teen-aged girls.

Sarah Brink, a busy and moody chef/restaurant owner and her absent husband eventually adopt a biracial toddler, which almost immediately requires that the new mother hold support group meetings in her living room, wine-fused conversations about racism with a handful of parents.

Tassie takes up with a Brazilian -- she thinks -- boy from one of her classes and spends rabid naked afternoons with him, filled with "I love yous" that she doles out, but does not get in return. She buys a motorized scooter, plays bass in her living room, misses her roommate, who has disappeared into the blankets of a new boyfriend, and puts off responding to her brother's e-mails.

Then, all of a sudden, loads start dropping on Tassie. These unexpected bits of yowch. I was bawling without even realizing I'd started to cry. Kudos, Moore.

So it's all pretty good. Tassie's relationship with the toddler is adorable, Tassie's relationship with Sarah Brink is never the same from day to day, Tassie's relationship with Sarah's husband is creepy. I had a hard time understanding exactly who Tassie is, what motivates her, and why what doesn't motivate her doesn't motivate her. She wasn't a character I could nail down in any concrete way.



Profile Image for Pamela W.
254 reviews3 followers
February 13, 2010
Oh boy, I've always loved Lorrie Moore - what is happening to me? I think I might have to stop doing Audio books because I can never tell if the audio is coloring my reception. And now, my rambling diatribe begins - - I hated every character in this book except Mary Emma; was annoyed by the insipid intellectual searching of backwater main character Tassie (into music, Sufism, and yet seemingly not really into anything at all), professing her love for a man who is so obviously booty-calling her but of course she doesn't know that; the irresponsible stand-offish yuppies congratulating themselves for their open-minded biracial relationships and adoptions; the parents of the child and their infuriating backstory; tons of self-undulgent writing that did nothing to move the story forward, helped round out the characters only somewhat, and even then you wished you knew less rather than more because they were annoying characters to begin with. Am I to really believe that a college student would have a lengthy affair with a man she believed to be Brazilian who is in fact middle-Eastern? Wasn't the fact that he didn't speak Portuguese at all a clue? No? His affiliation with the Muslim students' union didn't give raise an eyebrow? And who puts poison in a tupperware container in the refrigerator, exactly? Who then eats said poison and isn't pissed as hell at the idiot who put it in the fridge in a tupperware container? Really?!?! The characters all had this self-professed passion about this or that topic, but they were all ambivalent by nature, and totally unlikeable. If that is what Moore was striving for, as a work of irony this is a 4 start book. I'm rating it in terms of my personal enjoyment (I'm no critic, I'm all about me me me and what I like) and though I really wanted to love this, alas, I did not. I do, however, give the book cover 3 stars. I think I hurt myself writing this. I apologize all around.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,712 reviews1,145 followers
October 22, 2022
The book is ostensibly about growing up and on late teenage years where the discovery of learning/the world/cuisine/literature is quickly followed by the discovery of the compromises of adult life and the sadness at the heart of many relationships. It is also about rootlessness – Tessie no longer really belongs at home, college or in an adult world.

The author is clearly gifted – the writing is often well crafted with perceptive and humorous insights (if sometimes culturally hard to follow). However the overall novel doesn’t completely coalesce. The author is by background a short story writer and at times the novel feels like lots of short story ideas melded together, not always successfully – as an example Tessie’s progressive parents seem to jar with her discovering so much of the world at university and various other elements (the boyfriend, her climbing in her brother’s coffin, her job on her father’s farm dressed as a hawk to scare mice) feel like vignettes better in a separate story.
Profile Image for Margaret.
278 reviews169 followers
March 2, 2014
I bought this novel in 2009 when it was first published, encouraged to do so by some good reviews. But then I put it on the shelf and forgot about it. I picked it up recently, probably because Moore’s new collection of short stories was just published, and I thought I would read the novel before committing myself to read either Bark, Moore’s latest short story collection or Birds of America, her much praised 1998 collection.

I very much wanted to like this novel, but it just does not hold together. The pacing is very uneven, spending long passages on narration that seems neither to advance plot nor reveal character. And Moore’s sense of humor (I think that’s what it is) just falls totally flat for me. The protagonist, Tassie Keltjin, seeks work while she’s in college. She takes a job with Sarah and Edward Brink, a couple about to adopt a baby. Sarah takes Tassie with her when she goes to meet the very pregnant young woman who is planning to turn over her baby to the Brinks. The conversation at that meeting is beyond bizarre. What is with these people? Do they or don’t they wish to adopt this about-to-be-born child? Readers are very much wondering about all these folks. Tassie, on the other hand, takes everything as it comes. In fact, she takes pretty much everything life offers as it comes, which leads to this being a very unusual and unsatisfying coming-of-age novel. I wish I could be more positive about this book; I just cannot. I’d rate it a 2.5; I gave it a 3 because at least I kept reading to the end to see how it all turned out. I wondered what Tassie would learn from her attachment to her young charge. I’m not sure that I can be precise about what she does learn.

Perhaps Moore’s stories are better; perhaps when she doesn’t have to sustain characters and a plot line, things will be better. Maybe one day when I’m at the public library, I’ll stop and read a story from one of her collections, just to see.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,267 followers
November 29, 2009
This was compulsively readable, yet oddly unsatisfying. Like many readers, I find Lorrie Moore's short stories excellent, so it may be that this book suffered from the high expectations with which I approached it.

The story just didn't seem to warrant a full-length treatment as a novel - the characters, other than the narrator, were oddly two-dimensional. Actually, make that "including the narrator". Which is probably what sinks the book in the end, because the whole novel is written, to a claustrophobic extent, from the point of view of its coming-of-age college freshman main protagonist, Tassie. Moore tries hard to convey Tassie's confusion and alienation, and also seems to want to make some serious commentary about life in post 9/11 America, but somehow the whole thing never gels successfully. As other reviewers have pointed out, many of the plot elements - in particular, Tassie's relative isolation - don't ring true. I also found the adoption subplot overwrought - ultimately the whole story just sank under the weight of its own good intentions.

Given that Moore is the author, the book is well-written, but the exaggerated detachment of the narrator, and the failure of the various plot strands to add up to a coherent whole, made the novel an ambitious failure, in my opinion.

So, a bit of a letdown, from an author whose previous collections of short stories I enjoyed far more.
Profile Image for Linnea.
170 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2010
The prose is plenty "writerly" with some compelling descriptions and the beginnings of some interesting characters, but the story veers off track about halfway through and ends up piling on so many ridiculous plot contrivances that it turns into a freak show. By the end, the only character I cared about anymore had been summarily done away with, and the book had basically self-destructed. It's odd to me that someone who writes with this much detail would be so ignorant about plot development.

I just went back and read M. Kakatani's glowing NYTimes review and was amazed at this paragraph:
"Neither Reynaldo nor Sarah and Edward turn out to be who they say they are: revelations that Ms. Moore does a clumsy job of orchestrating (and in the case of Reynaldo, an absurd job of suggesting who he really is). In the hands of most writers such fumbles would instantly derail their story lines, but Ms. Moore is so deft at showing the fallout these discoveries have on her heroine that the reader speeds easily over the narrative bumps."

I completely disagree that the reader speeds easily over those narrative bumps just because the writing is deft. The absurdity and clumsiness of the storyline completely undermines her writing, in my opinion. I'm still confused about how a writer who is so observant in the small things is so clueless in the big things.
Profile Image for Iris.
281 reviews18 followers
November 21, 2009
An urgent novel. My impulse to savor Moore's prose was overthrown by a mania to follow it to the end of the line; I devoured it in a day. Only upon closing the book is it apparent that "A Gate at the Stairs" owes its allure to mystery. Each relationship is replete with humor, confusion and half-truths; each theme (learning, adoption/fertility, race, names, guilt) is equally significant to Moore's portrait of contemporary life, making it the rare, great fiction to depict how 9/11 and the events that followed fit into life.

"I'm . . . interested in the way that the workings of governments and elected officials intrude upon the lives and minds of people who feel generally safe from the immediate effects of such workings."

-- Lorrie Moore, quoted by Jonathan Lethem in the New York Times Book Review.


The main character tells her story in retrospect, recounting her 2002-2003 experiences many years later. If the protagonist is wildly wise-beyond-her-years, it's because we read the confessional of her life, condensed into a story about Tassie's coming-of-age.
Profile Image for Paltia.
633 reviews85 followers
September 15, 2019
A young woman goes to work as a nanny for a peculiar couple who adopt a bi racial child. Tassie enters into the household where she quickly becomes indispensable. There are lots of odds and ends here that sometimes tie together and other times are left to float away into the ether. Tassie approaches life wholeheartedly. She’s still learning these parents and what they want and need from her. She’s prepared to work hard for them and offer the child all the love within her. Her philosophy reads something like enjoy yourself in this place as long as it harms none and those around you are willing to periodically revel in in the wonderful sensation of being alive. But the parents confound her and with their eventual disclosures she is not all that closer to comprehending or daring to dispute their final decisions. The ending felt out of place as if suddenly Tassie regressed to becoming an adolescent minus what she just experienced.
Profile Image for Maria.
132 reviews34 followers
April 3, 2011
Good writing at times, but author tries too hard to be clever. But then maybe I'm tired of another coming-of-age story that's slighter than it should be, and too too meandering, although it's hilarious in parts & Moore does deftly and mercilessly explore some racial/hypocrisy issues -- there she's totally on target. Loved the food descriptions but it was difficult sustaining interest -- where's Moore going here? Unfocused. Tighter more ruthless editing was required, maybe. I expected more.
Profile Image for Ciara.
Author 3 books341 followers
December 19, 2009
the only reason i am shelving this with the "especially great novels" is because it's lorrie moore & i love her, even though this book is kind of ridiculous. jared asked me what it was about last night & i said, "well, it's about this 20-year-old college student who takes a job as a nanny. she's nannying for this white couple that adopts a baby that is biracial, she's part-black. they think they are being good nice liberals who won't let race stand in the way of their parenting, but as time goes on, they start to realize that transracial adoption is more complicated than they bargained for, like dealing with weird people in stores & stuff. & the nanny starts dating this guy from school who tells her he is brazilian, but i guess he is actually a muslim jihadist or something & one day she goes to his house after work & all his furniture is gone & he's just sitting there with his computer & his prayer rug & some cyanide tablets & he tells her that he got called away to do some kind of terrorism job or something & breaks her heart. & she is also getting really attached to the baby. but then the mom tells her that she used to have a kid when she lived on the east coast, but when the kid was four, the dad made the kid get out of the car on the freeway because he was being a brat & then he had to drive away & then he freaked out & tried to circle back & the kid tried to cross the highway when he saw the car coming & got killed. & the adoption agency finds out about this & takes the baby away. & also, the nanny's brother enlists & gets killed in afghanistan."

until i said it all out loud, it had seemed like a pretty good book. but suddenly it seemed totally crazy & really forced. jared was like, "what the fuck are you reading, lady? this is ridiculous." what he actually said was, "wow, it really takes a lot of effort to make a 20-year-old college student's life relevant to current events, huh?"

when i thought about it, it seemed kind of like a poor man's ruth ozeki. ruth ozeki also manages to fit in like 37 hot topic political issues in every novel--from war brides to abortion to mixed race children to eco-terrorism to porn. but the difference is that her protaganists are a little more engaging. the protaganist of this lorrie moore book, tassie, just seemed kind of bland & blah & not all that interesting, despite attempts to give her personality by making her play bass guitar. there were too many places where she uses a "cute" turn of phrase & attributes it to her brother or her roommate or whoever, & it freaked me out & made me wonder if lorrie moore just collects these clever little sayings to use them in her books. which she probably does, but i found it somewhat distasteful. like the narrative process was just too transparent. it took me out of the story, it made it seem like moore was trying too hard. sorry. i really wish i would have liked it better.
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