book coverA Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Reviewed by Rima Walker

Coming of age is a popular theme that crosses the line over many genres. Lorrie Moore, acclaimed author of Birds in America, has written one of the oddest and yet most satisfying. Her style is hilarious with its cleverness and puns, its parodies of small town life and middle class racism, but it is also lyrical in its descriptions of nature and sober in its relentless telling of love, loss, religious attitudes, and grief in a very new post-9/11 America. Her metaphors are priceless: for example, she describes the main character Tassie avoiding her family when she is at home by reading books that are “rabbit holes of escape”, a line that takes us back to the iconic Alice in Wonderland, also a coming of age story but set in the genre of fantasy.

The book begins ominously enough with a tale of dead and dying birds, but don’t let that throw you off. It segues quickly into the story of Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old innocent Midwesterner away at a prestigious college. She is the daughter of a gentile gentleman farmer who grows gourmet potatoes and a weird Jewish mother who makes a most un-Jewish brisket with tomato ketchup and dry onion soup mix for Christmas dinner and who, because of her poor vision, adds baking soda instead of cornstarch to thicken the broth, only to have it boil over. Then she slips salad into the dog’s bowl.

College changes Tassie. She falls for poets Rumi and Sylvia Plath, and distances herself from her family. She takes some very off-beat college courses including Wine Tasting and Intro to Sufism, which makes one wonder what exactly this girl is majoring in. Three major occurrences teach her life-changing lessons. First, she is hired by Sarah and Edward as a nanny for their adopted biracial daughter; second she succumbs to an affair with the sexy Reynaldo she meets in her Sufi class who turns out to be a guarded lover holding secrets fast to himself. Third, through love of her brother, Robert, and the results of a mistake, she learns that a small error can have disastrous results.

Through Sarah and Edward’s relationship, Tassie learns something about marriage and the secrets it can hide; through their adoption of a biracial beautiful little girl, Tassie discovers how she feels about children and racism and how the people around her feel about these things as well. By going through the adoption process with Sarah and Edward who experience the coldness of the adoption and foster care agencies, she finds out the lengths people will go to in order to achieve their hearts’ desires. From them, but also from Reynaldo, Tassie suffers the depths of cruelty and perfidy, pain and loss. But the most heart-wrenching lesson comes from Tassie’s awareness that a slip-up she commits regarding her brother Robert, for whom she has the deepest tenderness, has consequences that are heart-breaking. Our hearts are torn along with hers when we see through her eyes one consequence of war in a distant and alien country.

Moore’s writing is wonderful, filled with Tassie’s refreshing and droll observations, the crazy doings of her mother, the thoughtfulness of her father, Sarah’s gourmet restaurant menus that put food on a different plane and her need to zap library books in the microwave to destroy germs. But Moore is capable also of evoking in us the deep emotions Tassie experiences when the gate to the stairs is open and also when it is locked. There are shocking episodes in this book and joyous and funny ones, and Tassie is alive through the masterful ability of a truly admirable writer. ~

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