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Editorial Reviews

A Gate at the Stairs is a campus novel, and part of its intricate purpose is to tell us what the protagonist learns at school. Tassie is the daughter of a boutique farmer in Wisconsin whose neighbors suspect him of dilettantism for his low acreage and fancifully bred potatoes. Her younger brother Robert is about to graduate from high school totally unequipped with any kind of ambition, and a war in Afghanistan is about to midwife a war in Iraq. It's 2002, and Tassie is burying her uncertainties in scattershot classwork, a new job, and a first attempt at romance.

Narrator Mia Barron has an ironic tone that keeps her voice grounded, and she plays with the level of anxiety in the voices of the main characters. Tassie goes to work as a babysitter for Sarah Brink, who is about to adopt a baby, and muses during their interview on the Midwestern tic of agreeing by saying "Sounds good!" — a phrase so unassuming that it's "mere positive description". Forever accomodating in this way, Tassie allows herself to be drawn into a family drama she's wildly unprepared for. The engine of this drama is Sarah, and Barron's performance makes her voice distinctively high and tight, brittle but controlled. At first, this control seems only a cover for new-mother jitters, but as time goes on we begin to detect something darker beneath.

Life is arbitrary and chaotic in Moore's world, and the inner monologues of her characters are correspondingly thick with puns: accidental, meaningless resonances between words that have no real relationship each other. An overheard conversation at a support group slips from talk about "suffering sweepstakes" to "suffering succotash". How can anyone be sure what they mean when they have to rely on these slippery words? What Tassie learns during this year of college is that in life, as in language, it's easy to find false affinities. If this sounds light, it's not. What's said is complex, and what isn't said has devastating consequences. —Rosalie Knecht

Publisher's Summary

In her dazzling new novel--her first in more than a decade--Moore turns her eye on the anxiety and disconnection of post-9/11 America, on the insidiousness of racism, the blind-sidedness of war, and the recklessness thrust on others in the name of love. As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. She takes a part-time job as a nanny, to a mysterious and glamorous couple. As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed.
©2009 Lorrie Moore; ©2009 BBC Audiobooks America

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  • Overall

Great Writing - Not Great Book

Lorrie Moore is a terrific writer of short stories. I found many of the qualities of those stories in this book - funny, ironic, fierce and clear-eyed about people, close observation of social norms, and dead-on dialogue. But this novel didn't work for me. It hung on plot devices and characters' backstories that were unbelievable - and not in an intentional absurdist way - just out there. The connection to 9/11 seemed very thin, and most of the characters felt underdeveloped over the length of the book - keenly portrayed for a few scenes but not with much depth. Still, I kept thinking wow can Lorrie Moore write! Sometimes sad, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Narration was well-suited to the main character's voice. Looking forward to more short story masterpieces from Moore.

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Diane
  • BLACKSBURG, VA, United States
  • 05-04-10

not believable

Tassie reminds me of a kid who, after going strong for hours straight, comes in for dinner. When Dad asks, "What did you do today?" the reply is "Nothing." So disinterested in her life or the world, I hoped Tassie would drop out of the story and put both of us out of our misery. Maybe that's how you tell the tale of a post-9/11 20-year old, but it just didn't catch me the way it apparently appealed to others.

Much of the story was just not believable for me. Tassie becomes a nanny. She is described as very good at child care, but how can someone who is so matter-of-fact, unemotional and detached ever do so much as say "GOO!" to a small child?

While she's babysitting a group of children, Tassie can somehow hear long stretches of conversation 2 floors below. Really? This means (a) the children would have to be completely still AND (b) Tassie would have to be ignoring them - yet she gets kudos for doing such a good job.

Tassie's employer owns a fine restaurant. The author's discussion suggests she's maybe eaten a few nice meals, but I don't think she has any idea, really, about food, cooking, menus, or running a restaurant. She tries too hard to come up with odd flavor and component combinations.

The story about Sarah and Edward leaving their 4-year old on the Mass Turnpike, going to jail, changing their names and moving to the midwest. C'mon, gimme a break!

I'm sure it's possible for a university student such as Tassie to wind up enrolled in that liberal arts-gone-wild combo of courses she's taking, but her college experience sounds more like the 70s than present day. (Or maybe that's just my hope as university faculty?)

Clearly, some people really enjoyed this, so I encourage others to listen to the sample. If you like the narration, it will give you a good idea about how you'll respond to the book. If you aren't immediately captured, don't waste your time.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Lois
  • BOSTON, MA, United States
  • 02-05-10


I sometimes got annoyed with how the author gets carried away by her own ability to write...if you can get in another metaphor, do it...this tendency makes it hard to figure out what is important and what is just a verbal flourish, but for the patient reader, it turns into a very interesting and powerful story. Narration is a little whiney, but then so is the character telling the story.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Great prose, questionable reader

I love Lorrie Moore's writing, but I found the vocal style of the reader irritatingly whiney, and the priss in me was bothered by mispronunciations.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Lisa
  • Valley Village, CA, United States
  • 11-03-09

A simile-fest

Lorrie Moore never met a simile she didn't like--there must be hundreds of descriptions in that form throughout this book. It is writing so clever that one must stop to admire it, which distances the reader from the plot, as thin as it is. Mostly it is the slow revelations of a young college narrator who learns about love and loss in a year of her life. I enjoyed listening to it, although it is not a book I would recommend to people as a book "you can't put down" because it meanders often and sometimes feels like a meditation on life, which doesn't always compel me in an audiobook.

But the narrator, Mia Barron, is spot on with her ironic smarminess and voice of youthful longing. Get this one if you admire the great wordsmiths and like to be amazed by unusual talent.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Jamie
  • Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 09-27-09

A voice like no other

Lorrie Moore has a remarkable narrative voice. Her character Tassie, a young woman on the brink of her adult life, starts her story in that wry, dry, witty, razor-sharp voice of Lorrie-Moore brilliance, and you just hand yourself over to it. This is a not a perfect novel: the plot sometimes strains under its own weight, and the narrator is sometimes a little too clever, but it is a full, rich, sad, funny, provocative novel, and I will be thinking about it for a long, long time.

The narrator, Mia Barron, is a perfect match for this book. She nails every character, every line. In fact, this is the best-narrated audio book I have listened to.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Thickly, Lovingly Wordy

This is a substantial post 9-11 tale. Told from the perspective of a 20 year old college student. It deftly illustrates those life changing moments that occur in everyone's life. A girl goes from a farm girl who knows her world to a woman who realizes just how little she knows. I thought it was brilliantly done. I am a fan of words as is Lorrie Moore, she uses them as one would use different flavors to create a gourmet dish. This book is carmelized sage.

13 of 17 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Sue
  • Corpus Christi, TX, USA
  • 10-21-09

Narrator's voice is fingernails on chalkboard

I am 3 CDs into the book and must give up. The piercing, screechy voice stabs ice picks through my ear drums. I will just need to read the book because I cannot stand to listen to another minute of this narrator.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Girly cleverness

Being a non-American man of 50, I definitely had trouble being intellectually and spiritually satisfied by this book. Apart from the main character Tassie, who comes across as a believable adolescent college student, the other characters lack depth. This is strange as the dialogues are very well done, witty and true to life.
It's as if Tassie is watching TV, not living her life, she seems to be completely detached from all other people in her life.
I don't want to believe this is true to life, that would make the sad tale even sadder.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Staccato Plot

This book had a weird, staccato feeling, in which plot elements jumped around and sometimes seemed to omit important information. It kept me from really engaging with the book in ways I might have with a smoother ride. In addition, the narrator was perhaps instructed to read with the vocal affect originally from Valley Girls but now much more widespread that is known as "vocal fry" at the end of sentences -- that growly, I'm-so-bored kind of tone -- and it annoyed the heck out of me. I tried to overlook it or credit it as an intentional, performative device, but it was difficult to do so.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Julie
  • 10-15-10

Not as good as I hoped

I enjoy Lorrie Moore's short stories but was disappointed by this reading of her novel.

You may love this. I don't know if it was reading or the book(which I have not read) but I found the reading rather laboured, witticisms (and there are many) were so pointed up and drawn attention to that they soon failed to amuse me and seemed rather heavy handed. Maybe the style is less suited to the novel rather than short stories, or maybe it is just my preference for a different style of reading.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful