Monday, April 25, 2011

The TBR Reading Challenge: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

It sort of feels like I'm making slower progress than I think I should be on my To Be Read Challenge for 2011, but in fact, I'm keeping pace. I've just finished my fourth TBR book, and it's still April ... so I guess I'm right where I should be.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, is a book that I first read about in the New York Times, where it was included in the ten best books of 2009. Lorrie Moore is for me a curiosity. The author of 3 novels and 3 collections of short stories, she is critically acclaimed, popular enough to have had at least two bestsellers and a dedicated fan base, yet most people I have talked to about A Gate at the Stairs (including a lot of people who would consider themselves well read) have never heard of her.

I was drawn to this book by its inclusion in the New York Times year end list, and by the glowing and well thought out review it received in the times by Michiko Kakutani ("First Time for Taxis, Lo Mein and Loss" ). I even convinced my book club to read it. But for me, and for many members of the book club, the book didn't live up to the hype. It's the story of Tassie Keltjin, a girl from the rural Midwest US, who moves to a small Midwest city to attend university and who takes a job as a baby sitter for a couple who are adopting a child. It is in Tassie's voice, looking back from an unspecified future date, that we hear the story of a year of great changes for her. The book touches on a wealth of topics: motherhood, racial tensions, class tensions, religion, 9/11, coming-of-age and even food issues in a story that is by turns funny, shocking and tragic.

There are great things about this novel: aspects of the story line are very compelling, it is certainly a very emotional book and it was the sort of story that keeps you reading, but there were other things that just didn't work for me. My awareness that Moore is an accomplished short story writer was always in the back of my head: it felt like there were several excellent short stories in this novel, but somehow it failed to come together as a whole. Reaction at the book club was mixed. There was one person who hands down loved A Gate at the Stairs, and as with any book club selection, a couple who really disliked it; but the majority of folks around the table seemed to have very similar comments and we were all just a little bit confused by what to make of this book.

In the end I feel like this book was a strange introduction to this author. I certainly can't entirely say I disliked A Gate at the Stairs, but I can't entirely say I liked it either. Perhaps my next move will to be pick up one of Lorrie Moore's story collections, and see what she does with that form, in particular her story "People like that are the only people here" from the collection, Birds of America is one I keep hearing about.

I'd certainly be curious to find out about your opinion of this or any of Lorrie Moore's books in the comments field below.

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