BANG Book Review – A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Our latest GGG book club pick, A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, was pretty much a unanimous “not recommended”. Overall, the gals were disappointed.

Before getting into that, I will say that although I didn’t love the book, I did enjoy it. I did not find it boring or hard to get through, and I didn’t skim large sections, as some book club members did. I liked some moments a lot, and will remember some moments probably forever. That’s something.

The book flap talks vaguely about Tassie, a green-from-the-country college freshman, getting a job as a nanny in post 9-11 America, and the attending angst and racial tension, life unraveling, yada yada. The author bio says Lorrie Moore is an English professor, has written a few critically acclaimed books – and this one was “eagerly anticipated” or some such. I guess we were all expecting the book to deal with issues in more of a head-on fashion, knock our socks off a bit more.

There was general agreement on several key points:

  • We found the writing pretentious and overly self-conscious. (There were some turns of phrase I thought were brilliant, mostly the pithier ones, but many were just overdone. And I was surprised at how the author felt entitled to belabour certain points or take jokes too far so that they became unfunny.)
  • Related to that, we found the voice to be totally unconvincing as belonging to a naive twenty-year-old.
  • We found the plot wandery, and the timing uneven.
  • We wished there had been a bit more detail or conclusion to at least some plot strands.
  • We were all shocked and horrified by the dark history of the adoptive parents – can you think of a worse nightmare?
  • The character we liked best, who was a redeeming feature of the novel, was the adopted girl, Mary-Emma. I personally was moved by the relationship between Tassie and her little charge.

I’d say the best thing about this book was that it prompted a great discussion. We talked a lot about what makes good parenting, and how best to protect children and help them be independent and functional. (An interesting point was brought up that related to another of our GGG books, The Lovely Bones: one member noted that her two-year-old daughter doesn’t like to hug one of her uncles, although she recently did willingly when bribed with a jujube. This made us all laugh, but this mom, upon thinking about it, said she thinks she should probably encourage her daughter to trust when she has a “no” feeling about someone – we shouldn’t force our kids to be physical if they’re uncomfortable with it, just for the sake of politeness or good form or whatever.)

We talked about adoption and foster care and how tragic it can be. I have to say, there was a point in this book that almost brought tears to my eyes, thinking of how there really are toddlers out there who get attached to a “mama” and then, basically without warning, get a new one – and this can happen many times to the same child. How can anyone be okay, having their mama be taken away, repeatedly?

And we talked about racism, and how tough it is as an issue. It’s still there despite our best efforts; it also gets used as an excuse sometimes; and none of us white folks living in Guelph can fully understand what it’s like to be part of a visible minority, try as we might. Many of us in the book club are teachers, actively involved in trying to figure out how to make diversity more harmonious for everyone, but it’s a tricky, fraught business.

So, to sum up: GGG as a whole doesn’t recommend this book, but I personally say you might find it interesting. I certainly wanted to know what happened next.

Lorrie, thanks for a good discussion.

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