Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lorrie Moore

I finished A Gate at the Stairs on Friday and have been dying to write about it but I'm afraid that I succumbed to a summer cold and glumly spent Sunday and most of Monday in bed with a box of kleenex and a jar of Vicks. Without a doubt this is one of the finest novels I've read this year and I'm still trying to analyze why I've avoided Ms. Moore's books in the past. I guess I've always thought of Lorrie Moore as a preeminent short story writer and I generally steer clear of short stories.

I'm listening to an interview with Ms. Moore from Amazon and the questioner mentions how much humor there was in the book.


 She denies that she was trying to be funny but the fact remains that her characters are very observantly sarcastic and witty. Thank goodness for that or else the darkness would take you down to such a deep place that it would be difficult to crawl out of.

 I'm sorry that at the library we've already chosen our book discussion selections for the upcoming season as this would have been high on my list. It has everything one needs for an explosive talk: coming of age, generational conflicts, racial tensions, war and its consequences, marriage and its secrets and compromises. How, you might ask, does an author manage to concoct a storyline with so much depth in some 250 pages? That's the miracle of a great writer, isn't it?

Remember when you left the confines of your home and family for your first year away at college? Perhaps you went to a larger city and were on your own for the first time? For some, the freedom can be too much to handle, but for Tassie Keltjin, responsible, dependable mid-western gal, the transition was remarkably stress free. She reminded me of me forty years ago, what my dad would have called "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," open to all new experiences, sitting in rapt attention in class, and completely naive to the baser natures of others.

So when Tassie applies for a part time job as nanny for Sarah and Ed, a white couple who are in the process of adopting a little girl of mixed race, Tassie ignores the uncomfortable signals that all is not as it should be between the happy parents. She wonders about the insouciance of Edward toward the entire process and the ability of the hard charging Sarah to go off to work at her gourmet restaurant each day leaving Tassie and  little Mary Emma, to fend for themselves.

Tassie falls deeper and deeper in love with Mary Emma even as she begins her first physical relationship with a mysterious young man, supposedly Brazilian, whom she meets in class. Reynaldo, Tassie and Mary Emma stroll the streets of Troy, the fictional, ostensibly liberal college town that is likely Madison, Wisconsin, and Tassie's eyes are opened to the scathing looks and blatant assumptions that are angled her way by those who see only an aimless white teen with a black child.

Moore absolutely pummels the self-satisfied, liberal elite through her description of the Wednesday night gathering at Sarah and Ed's home of the "Families of Mixed Race Children" self-help group. Is there a group for EVERYthing? While Tassie entertains all the children in an upstairs playroom the outrageous, controversial conversations from below filter up and into her subconsciousness, heightening her protective feelings toward these kids who seem to be pawns in a grownup game of oneupmanship.

To say much more about this novel would be to divulge too many of the stunners that hit one after another somewhere after the middle of the book. Just when I thought that I had cleverly discerned the significance of the title, Ms. Moore took her book in an entirely different direction. I tip my hat to this awe inspiring writer.

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