Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction
Chosen as a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Kansas City Star, Financial Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Real Simple
Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gentleman farmer, has come to a university town as a student. When she takes a job as a part-time nanny for a mysterious and glamorous family, she finds herself drawn deeper into their world and forever changed. Told through the eyes of this memorable narrator, A Gate at the Stairs is a piercing novel of race, class, love, and war in America.
Excerpted from A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Copyright © 2009 by Lorrie Moore. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lorrie Moore, after many years as a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is now Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Moore has received honors for her work, among them the Irish Times International Prize for Literature, a Lannan Foundation fellowship, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award for her achievement in the short story. Her most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs, was shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction and for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
“Profound. . . . Get ready to expand your sense of what [Moore]—and a novel—can do.” —The Washington Post Book World
“An indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11…. Moore has written her most powerful book yet.” —The New York Times
“A miracle of lyric force, beautiful and beautifully constructed, with a comic touch that transforms itself to a kind of harrowing precision.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A Gate at the Stairs has the power to make you laugh and cry, sometimes almost simultaneously.” —The Miami Herald
“Lorrie Moore’s writing is everything that life is, funny and heart-breaking—and rich.” —The Denver Post
“Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Fifty years from now, it may well turn out that the work of very few American writers has as much to say about what it means to be alive in our time as that of Lorrie Moore.” —Harper’s Magazine
“Moore tells a deeply troubling story about race and class and gender in post-9/11 America. And she does it with characteristic wit and intelligence, without letting a soul off the hook. . . . Dazzling.” —The Oregonian
“This novel explores, with enormous emotional precision, the limitations and insufficiencies of love, and the loneliness that haunts even the most doting of families. . . . Moore gives us stark, melancholy glimpses into her characters’ hearts.” —The New York Times
“Spectacular. . . . Gate is a gift.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Moore . . . has created a delightful protagonist and narrator—funny, mouthy, good-hearted and deliciously awkward. . . . What rings true over and over is Tassie’s—and of course, Moore’s—choice of humor as body armor against terrors both new and old.” —The Plain Dealer
“Lyrical, funny, disturbing, and at times brilliantly insightful. . . . There’s not much . . . predictable about this electric-bass-playing, Sylvia-Plath-spouting, motor-scooter-driving, pun-making college kid. . . . Uncommonly rich in pithy observations, startling realizations and zany nuggets of satire.” —The Seattle Times
“Beautiful. . . . Wonderfully described and worthy of savoring. . . Bright and lovely.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Tassie’s awakening is nothing short of brilliant. . . . This is not merely a coming-of-age novel, but a world coming to grips with a new, uneasy existence.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“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. . . . Strange and moving.” —The Washington Post Book World
“A stunning examination of grief—the learning of it, the insidious ways in which it seeps into everything, eating away at people and relationships, lingering until sometimes forgiveness becomes impossible.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Moore balances pathos and humor, poetry and puns, often on the seesaw of the same sentence. . . . A Gate at the Stairs is vintage Lorrie Moore.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Moore’s penetrating and singular voice as a writer is one I could listen to for years and years.”—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air, NPR
“Tassie is achingly real and, thanks to Moore’s nimble prose, an unbeatable guide through the thicket of early adulthood.” —People
“Moore’s acute intelligence and sheer love of wordplay make her challenging and interesting to read. She’s also funny as hell. A Gate at the Stairs is not a novel anyone will want to put down. . . . This is Greek tragedy cloaked in a coming-of-age cape.” —Houston Chronicle
“Lorrie Moore inspires fierce loyalty, for good reason. She’s the sheriff of a wild and lonely territory, in which empathetic people fight despair with charming words.” —Newsday
“A fiction writer with as fine a bead on contemporary life and relationships and absurdity as anyone writing today. . . . Startling, painful, funny.” —Elle
“Moore is by turns ironic and tragic in her portrayal of a woman struggling to find herself in a troubled new century.” —More
“Incisively funny. . . .Witty and endearing. . . . There are some books that you don’t so much want to review as to hand out copies to all your reading friends. This is one of those.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Lorrie Moore has a unique gift. She can be screamingly funny—and in the very next paragraph, able to convey terrible grief. . . . Pitch-perfect. . . . Dazzling.” —USA Today
“In Tassie Keltjin . . . Moore has created an indelible character who leaves the reader with a startling and poignant story.” —The Kansas City Star
“Brims with the sort of humor and piquant social observations that first brought [Moore] fame as a short-story writer.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Lovely and amusing.” —Time Out New York
“On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately (well, the dog was between us, but she doesn’t read much, and none of what I recommend).” —Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times Book Review
“A powerful, compassionate novel, both funny and tragic, and always beautifully told.” —Newsweek
“Readers of contemporary fiction who don’t love Lorrie Moore just haven’t read her. . . . A rich, expansive and singularly quirky feast.” —Salt Lake Tribune
“A remarkable meditation of a novel. . . . Moore is a master of the defining detail, and she shines a revealing spotlight on Tassie and the kaleidoscope of characters surrounding her.” —The Denver Post
“Wise, rueful, luminous, intoxicating. . . . A startlingly moving, gorgeously written book.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Lays bare the fissures in American society as one young woman is forced to confront not just the changes in the world around her, but in herself.” —New York Post
“The crafted dazzle of Moore’s writing stands center stage. . . . Lovers of language will find much to enjoy here.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Tassie’s wit and bruisable heart makes this novel refreshingly real.” —Good Housekeeping
“Breathtaking. . . . You’ll want to have some tissues ready—and we’re not even getting to half of it. But the saddest part will be when it’s over.” —Daily Candy
“Reverberates with a quiet, lingering power that leaves the reader pondering the randomness of life and death, and the wisdom and futility of love.” —Sacramento Book Review
“Comic, moving, and ultimately harrowing. . . . Its wonderful, heartbreaking conclusion reminds us that no matter how we suffer, we still can reach a peculiarly human state of grace.” —The Miami Herald
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?
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