Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore's writing contains wave after wave of narrative description that gradually pulls at you until it's got its tentacles deep into your brain (and heart) and then rips. A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's first novel after a long hiatus, is no exception.

Sweet Midwesterner Tassie, a liberal arts college student with amusingly daft and hippie-ish farmer parents (dad grows potatoes prized by expensive restaurants, mom mostly farms neurosis in mirror-lined flower beds) is drifting through her college days without much aim or direction. She searches for a job as a nanny and accepts one with Sarah Brink, a tightly wound local restauranteur with a distant and peevish husband. Sarah is in the process of adopting a baby and ends up with Mary, whom she renames Emmie, a sweet biracial toddler. Tassie and Emmie quickly bond, with Tassie spending more time with Emmie than Sarah or her husband, Edward.

As character studies, Tassie, Edward, and Sarah are richly, terrifyingly alive. Tassie's butter-bland exterior hides a watchful and wondering character, and Sarah is more than a self-righteous yuppie-she's hiding a deep, awful grief and has built a new life on the thinnest thread of deception. Even Edward, originally painted as a narcissistic and self-absorbed partner, hides a sense of quiet, strangling desperation.

Moore's one misstep is in Tassie's burgeoning relationship with a classmate, the purportedly Brazilian Reynaldo. Like all of her characters, Reynaldo is simultaneously more and less than he seems, but his appearance and then abrupt disappearance does little for the plot, aside from reminding the reader how tenuous a grip love holds when faced with dishonesty.

The book moves from Tassie's small hometown and farm, where her brother is marking time until graduation and his entry into the military, and her college town, where she's settled into a routine of class, Emmie, and Reynaldo, until Sarah's revelation uproots her (and Emmie). Tassie returns home only to face the loss of her sibling in Afghanistan and the subsequent unraveling of her parents' life.

A Gate at the Stairs examines racism and the political and social upheaveal after 9/11 through Tassie's provincial but open mindset. Her lack of pretensions is especially refreshing juxtaposed against Sarah and her cohorts artificial and self-conscious 'openmindedness' (Sarah's support group for adoptive parents of multiracial children is chilling in its callous treatment of race relations), and after the death of her brother, Tassie's grief has the hysterical depth of the real. The actions of the adoption agencies Sarah consults during her search for a child are equally disturbing in their determination to do the 'right thing' as they consider it for the children they are placing.

Moore's novel was worth the wait. The disarming opening chapters leave you unprepared for the breathless and terrible twist the novel takes midway, and her characters' grasping for atonement and connection is, like all of her writing, painfully authentic.

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