Tassie Keltjin is an undergraduate student living in a Midwestern university town. Needing some extra money, she decides to take a job as a part-time nanny for a childless couple looking to adopt. Sarah Brink is a chef who has her own restaurant; Edward specializes in eye cancer research. Tassie travels with the two to visit their potential babies and birth mothers and begins to see the quirks that characterize this family. As she experiences her own coming-of-age, Tassie becomes part of this new, slightly unbalanced family.
Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs is an interesting look at post-9/11 America. She tackles a multitude of subjects here: there is racism, and even more interestingly, a reverse racism where different races are used specifically for their diversity. There is also an exploration of the nanny-child relationship and what happens when a child looks to her caregiver rather than her mother for support. Moore also injects plenty of humor and wit into the narrative. More often than not, the reader is left smirking from the unique conversations and plot points.
However, A Gate at the Stairs also has many flaws which prevent it from being a great novel. First, there is barely a plot to hold this book together. The real driving force is the mystery behind Sarah and Edward, and it fizzles quickly. The book meanders at its own plodding pace, never really coming to a point. There’s a lot of description, but not a lot there to describe. Additionally, Moore’s writing is extremely florid and unnecessarily verbose. She uses sentences when a mere phrase would do. The sheer number of similes and metaphors are overwhelming. The metaphor in the title, A Gate at the Stairs, is clear early on and doesn’t need to be reinforced so many times, along with all the others present in the novel.
A Gate at the Stairs is, above all, Tassie’s coming-of-age story, though the frequent, sometimes aimless subplots take away from this main goal. This book possesses a great deal of promise, but the execution is flawed. Here’s hoping that Lorrie Moore’s next effort has some tighter editing and a more straightforward story.