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Gate at the Stairs (Moore)

A Gate at the Stairs
Lorrie Moore, 2009
Knopf Doubleday
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375708466

Summary  
Tassie Keltjin has come from a small farming town to attend college in Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest.” She's swept into a thrilling world of books and films and riveting lectures, high-flying discussions about Bach, Balkanization, and bacterial warfare, and the witty repartee of her fellow students. At the end of the semester, Tassie takes a job as a part-time nanny for the newly adopted child of Sarah Brink, the owner of a trendy downtown restaurant, and her husband, Edward Thornwood, a scientist pursuing independent research.

Tassie is enchanted by the little girl. Her feelings about Sarah and Edward are less easily defined, and as she becomes an integral part of their family, the mysteries of their lives and their relationship only deepen. She finds little to anchor her: a boyfriend turns out to be quite different from what he seems; vacations in her hometown are like visits to an alien country; and her loving, eccentric family no longer provides the certainties and continuity that shaped her childhood..

Lorrie Moore's ability to blend quick wit and hilarious observations of current trends with moving portraits of people struggling with loneliness, confusion, and the desire for love has made her one of the most admired writers of our time. Capturing the mood of post-9/11 America with astonishing deftness and precision, A Gate at the Stairs showcases Moore at the height of her powers. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—January 13, 1957
Where—Glens Falls, New York, USA
Education—B.A., St. Lawrence University; M.F.A., Cornell
  University
Awards—O. Henry Award; Rea Award for the Short Story;
  member, American Academy of Arts & Letters.
Currently—lives in Wisconsin


Lorrie Moore is the author of the story collections Like Life, Birds of America, and Self-Help, as well as her novels Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Anagrams, and most currently, A Gate at the Stairs. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. She is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. (From the publisher.)

More
Marie Lorena Moore ("Lorrie") is an American fiction writer, known for her humorous and poignant short stories and her novels.

She attended St. Lawrence University. At 19, she won Seventeen magazine's fiction contest. After graduating from St. Lawrence, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a paralegal for two years.

In 1980, Moore enrolled in Cornell University's M.F.A. program, where she was taught by Alison Lurie. Upon graduation from Cornell, a teacher encouraged her to contact agent Melanie Jackson. Jackson sold her collection, Self-Help, composed almost entirely of stories from her master's thesis, to Knopf in 1983. Moore was 26 years old.

Her short story collections are Self Help, Like Life, and Birds of America, which became a New York Times bestseller. She has contributed to the Paris Review, and her first story to appear in The New Yorker, "You're Ugly, Too," was later included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Another story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," was reprinted in the annual collection The Best American Short Stories; the tale of a young child falling sick, it was loosely patterned on events in Moore's own life. The story was also included in the 2005 anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, edited by David Sedaris. She writes frequently about failing relationships and terminal illness and is known for her mordant wit and pithy one-liners. Her stories often take place in the Midwest.

Moore's Collected Stories was published by Faber in the UK in May 2008. It included selections from each of her previously published collections, excerpts from her novel Anagrams, and three previously uncollected stories (first published in The New Yorker).

Moore's novels are Anagrams (1986), Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), and A Gate at the Stairs (2009). Anagrams was optioned for film by Madonna for a film that was never made. A Gate at the Stairs takes place just after the September 11 attack and is about a twenty-year-old Midwestern woman's coming of age.

Moore has written a children's book entitled The Forgotten Helper. It concerns an elf whom Santa mistakenly leaves behind at the home of the worst child on his "good" list. The elf must help the child be good for the coming year, so Santa will return next Christmas.

On November 1, 2008 The Guardian published a new short story by Lorrie Moore entitled "Foes."

Moore is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She was also profiled in the September 2009 Reader's Digest about her current readings (Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro), her current novel, A Gate at the Stairs, her Internet usage (Wikipedia), her listenings (Al Green, Joni Mitchell, and Tuck & Patti), and her television habits (Mark Shields, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart. Eugene Robinson, and Rachel Maddow). Moore's view of Life and Literature is "Life is a cornfield, but literature is that shot of whiskey that's been distilled down.

Moore has won a number of literary awards: the 1998 O. Henry Award for her short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," published in The New Yorker on January 27, 1997. In 2004, Moore was selected as winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story, for outstanding achievement in that genre. In 2006, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
More expansive than either of her two previous novels…also a novel that brandishes some "big" material: racism, war, etc.—albeit in Moore's resolutely insouciant key…Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at once—unmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She's a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one. On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately.
Jonathan Lethem - New York Times Book Review


Ms. Moore has written her most powerful book yet, a book that gives us an indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief…in this haunting novel Ms. Moore gives us stark, melancholy glimpses into her characters' hearts, mapping their fears and disappointments, their hidden yearnings and their more evanescent efforts to hold on to their dreams in the face of unfurling misfortune.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


A Gate at the Stairs is Moore's first novel in 15 years, which means a whole generation of readers has grown up thinking of her only as one of the country's best short-story writers. Get ready to expand your sense of what she—and a novel—can do…The story's apparent modesty and ambling pace are deceptive, a cover for profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult life—what all of us learn to endure "in the dry terror of cluelessness"…what's so endearing is Moore's ability to tempt us with humor into the surreal boundaries of human experience, those strange decisions that make no sense out of context, the things we can't believe anyone would do.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Moore (Anagrams) knits together the shadow of 9/11 and a young girl's bumpy coming-of-age in this luminous, heart-wrenchingly wry novel—the author's first in 15 years. Tassie Keltjin, 20, a smalltown girl weathering a clumsy college year in “the Athens of the Midwest,” is taken on as prospective nanny by brittle Sarah Brink, the proprietor of a pricey restaurant who is desperate to adopt a baby despite her dodgy past. Subsequent “adventures in prospective motherhood” involve a pregnant girl “with scarcely a tooth in her head” and a white birth mother abandoned by her African-American boyfriend—both encounters expose class and racial prejudice to an increasingly less naïve Tassie. In a parallel tale, Tassie lands a lover, enigmatic Reynaldo, who tries to keep certain parts of his life a secret from Tassie. Moore's graceful prose considers serious emotional and political issues with low-key clarity and poignancy, while generous flashes of wit—Tessie the sexual innocent using her roommate's vibrator to stir her chocolate milk—endow this stellar novel with great heart.
Publishers Weekly


Just months after 9/11, college student Tassie Keltjin, the brilliant daughter of a Midwestern farmer, becomes a part-time nanny for an older white couple who have adopted an African American baby. Enjoying her delightful young charge and reveling in her love affair with her Brazilian boyfriend, Tassie has a growing suspicion that her employers are somehow off. When their identities, as well as her boyfriend's, are blown, Tassie heads home, only to be hit with another, more devastating shock. Verdict: Moore uses the same kind of poetic precision of language found in her dazzling short story collections (e.g., Birds of America) to draw the reader into her long-awaited third novel (after Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?). The challenge for readers is to reconcile the beautiful sharpness of her language with two wildly improbable plot threads. —Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Library Journal


In How Fiction Works, the tutorial by the New Yorker critic and Harvard professor, James Wood writes, "Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on."Contemporary fiction has produced few noticers with a better eye and more engaging voice than Tassie Keltjin, the narrator of Lorrie Moore's deceptively powerful A Gate at the Stairs. For much of Moore's first novel in 15 years-her short stories have established her as something of a Stateside Alice Munro—Tassie's eye and ear are pretty much all there is to the book. And they are more than enough, for the 20-year-old college student makes for good company. Perceptive, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, she lulls the reader into not taking the matter-of-fact events of Tassie's life too seriously, until that life darkens through a series of events that even the best noticers might not have predicted. Because her ostensible roommate now lives with a boyfriend, we get to know Tassie very well—as a fully fleshed character rather than a type—and spend a lot of time inside her head. She splits her year between the university community more liberal than the rest of the Midwest and the rural Wisconsin town where her father is considered more of a "hobbyist" farmer than a real one. "What kind of farmer's daughter was I?" she asks. A virgin, but more from lack of opportunity than moral compunction (she compares her dating experiences to an invisible electric fence for dogs), and a bass player, both electric and stand-up. Singing along to her instrument, she describes "trying to find themidway place between melody and rhythm—was this searching not the very journey of life?" Explains Moore of her protagonist, "Once I had the character and voice of Tassie I felt I was on my way. She would be the observer of several worlds that were both familiar and not familiar to her.... Initially, I began in the third person and it was much more of a ghost story and there were a lot of sisters and, well, it was a false start. "It's hard to imagine this novel working in the third person, because we need to see Tassie's life through her eyes. As she learns some crucial lessons outside the classroom, the reader learns as well to be a better noticer. Tassie's instincts are sound, but her comic innocence takes a tragic turn, as she falls into her first serious romance, finds a job as nanny for an adopted, biracial baby and suffers some aftershocks from 9/11 a long way from Manhattan. The enrichment of such complications makes this one of the year's best novels, yet it is Tassie's eye that makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. In addition to her sense of humor and intelligence, what are Tassie's strengths as a narrator? How does what she describes as “an unseemly collection of jostling former selves” (p. 63) affect the narrative and contribute to the appeal of her tale?

2. In the farming community where Tassie grew up, her father “seemed a vaguely contemptuous character.... His idiosyncrasies appeared to others to go beyond issues of social authenticity and got into questions of God and man and existence” (p. 19). Does the family, either intentionally or inadvertently, perpetuate their standing as outsiders? How does Moore use what ordinarily might be seen as clichés and stereotypes to create believable and sympathetic portraits of both the locals and the Keltjin family?

3. How does the initial meeting between Tassie and Sarah (pp. 10-24) create a real, if hesitant, connection between them? What aspects of their personalities come out in their conversation? To what extent are their impressions of each other influenced by their personal needs, both practical and psychological?

4. Are Sarah's ill-chosen comments at the meetings with Amber (p. 32) and Bonnie (pp. 89-90, p. 93) the result of the natural awkwardness between a birth mother and a potential adoptive mother or do they reveal deeper insecurities in Sarah? Does the adoption process inevitably involve a certain amount of willful deception, unenforceable promises (p. 87), and a “ceremony of approval ... [that is] as with all charades. . . . wanly ebullient, necessary, and thin” (p. 95)?

5. What is the significance of Tassie's first impression of Edward-“one could see it was his habit to almost imperceptibly dominate and insult”-and her realization that “[d]espite everything, [Sarah] was in love with him” (p. 91)? Does Edward's behavior at dinner and the “small conspiracy” he and Tassie establish (pp. 112-114) offer a more sympathetic (or at least more understandable) view of him? Are there other passages in the novel that bring out the contradictions between his outward behavior and his private thoughts?

6. Does A Gate at the Stairs accurately reflect the persistence of racism in America? What do the comments and encounters sprinkled throughout in the novel (pp. 80, 112, 151, 167, 229) show about the various forms racism takes in our society?

7. Do you agree with Sarah's statement, “Racial blindness-now there's a very white idea” (p. 86)? What do the discussions in Sarah's support group (pp. 154-57; 186-90; 194-97) reveal about the different perceptions of reality held by African-Americans and white liberals? What role do class, wealth, and professional status play in opinions expressed by various members of the group? In this context, what is the import of Tassie's description of Mary-Emma's affection for Reynaldo: “the colorblindness of small children is a myth; she noticed difference and sameness, with almost equal interest; there was no 'Dilemma of Difference' as my alliteration-loving professors occasionally put it” (p. 169)?

8. How would you characterize the comments about religion throughout the novel (pp. 41, 108, 129)? What is the significance of the fact that Tassie's mother is Jewish, a woman of “indeterminate ethnicity” in a churchgoing community? Why are Roberta Marshall and Sarah so cavalier about Bonnie's insistence that her child be raised as a Catholic (p. 87)? How do Reynaldo's revelations about his activities and beliefs (pp. 204-8) fit into Tassie's view of God and religion in general? On page 296, Tassie offers a thoughtful explanation of the purpose of religion in people's lives. Are there other lessons about the meaning of religion or faith to be found in the novel?

9. The title of the book comes from a ballad Tassie writes with her roommate (p. 219-20). What does music-playing the bass and singing to Mary-Emma-represent to Tassie? How does it connect her to her own family and to Mary-Emma?

10. Does the novel prepare you for Sarah's dreadful confession (pp. 232-242)? What particular incidents or conversations foreshadow the revelations? How do Sarah's “conventional” beliefs about men and women affect the couple's behavior during and after the tragedy (pp. 240, 244)? Was their decision to move and start anew the best solution under the circumstances? Do the reasons Sarah gives for remaining with Edward make emotional sense? If they had been able to keep their secret hidden, would they have been able to create a happy future with Mary-Emma?

11. Nannies and other household help often grasp things families don't realize about themselves. Is Tassie an objective chronicler of life in the Brink-Thornwood household? What biases does she bring to her observations? How do her perceptions and opinions change over the course of the novel? In what ways does her growing attachment to Mary-Emma and her relationship with Sarah account for these changes? In what ways are they attributable to the developments in her personal life?

12. How do the vignettes of Tassie's visits home and her life in Troy play off one another? What do Tassie's conversations with her family bring out about the ambivalence she (and many college students) experience? Why does Tassie fail to recognize the depth of Robert's pain and confusion? Is Robert's decision to join the army given the attention it deserves by the rest of the family?

13. Does the Midwestern setting of the novel offer a distinctive perspective on September 11, 2001, and the mood of the country? How were the events experienced in other parts of America-for example, in the cities directly affected by the terrorist attacks?

14. Lorrie Moore has been widely praised for her affecting depictions of human vulnerability and her dark humor. How does Moore integrate clever one-liners, puns, and wordplay into the serious themes she is exploring? What role does humor play in exposing the thoughts, feelings, and fears the characters are unwilling or unable to express? Does it heighten the emotional force of the novel or diminish it?

15. “I had also learned that in literature-perhaps as in life-one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself” (p. 263-64]. How does this quotation apply to your reading of A Gate at the Stairs?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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