Sunday, March 7, 2010
Stairway to Heaven
Critics and writers all seem to be very aware of the author Lorrie Moore. I think one of the best things about blogging books is the many writers I am encountering that I have never read or have not been aware of. Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate At The Stairs” is her first novel in fifteen years. It has appeared on many "Best-of-2009" lists. So I was intrigued when I received it as a Christmas gift.
The story takes place over a year in the life of twenty year old Tassie Keltjin, who is a college student at a small, liberal, Midwestern college in the city of Troy. Tassie grew up on a small farm where her father raised organic potatoes which he sold to upscale restaurants. College life has opened up a new and fascinating world to Tassie. Between semesters Tassie looks for a part time job as a baby sitter. She is finally hired by the eccentric Sarah Brink, who owns a French restaurant and her husband Edward, a cancer researcher. But strangely, Sarah and Edward do not have any children. They are in the process of adopting a child and they want Tassie to accompany them as they interview mothers who are giving up their babies. When Sarah and Edward adopt a biracial toddler, who they name Mary-Emma, Tassie begins a strange journey.
The plot meanders in a slow and plodding way. Tassie’s family dynamics enter into the picture as she learns that her younger brother wants to join the service and her father decides on a new venture. The story takes place just after 9/11, and Tassie falls in love with a fellow student who tells her he is from Brazil but is really from the Middle East. Moore has a wonderful way with words and her descriptions of nature and the weather, although beautiful, seem to go on forever. There is also amazing commentary about race in America as Sarah has meetings in her home for “transracial, biracial, multiracial families”. Sarah is determined to change the world. Lorrie Moore has a special voice that shows how ridiculous and humorous well meaning people can be. The title refers initially to the gate which is broken at the entrance to Sarah’s house, but it appears more than once as a metaphor for the stairway to heaven and as lyrics in songs that Tassie writes.
A reader who stays engaged for the first 200 pages will be greatly rewarded. The last quarter of this novel is startling in its revelations. It is a story of overwhelming loss and grief, and how people need to pay attention or life will blindside you. In the end this is a haunting novel where the narrator grows and changes and the reader is rooting for her all the way. After reading this novel I am looking forward to reading Lorrie Moore’s critically acclaimed short story collection, “Birds of America”.