A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

The first couple of pages of this novel made me chuckle and look forward to a great read. However, round about page 50 I debated about giving up on the tedious plot. At page 100, terminally bored, I put the book down. I picked it up again a few days later only because it was my book club's pick for the month.

I've learned that if a book's cover trumpets that it is a National Bestseller and has pages of ecstatic rave reviews just inside, I won't like it. Blame the raised expectations that keep me from giving a mediocre book the benefit of the doubt or the feeling that I've been tricked by a bait-and-switch. As one member of my book club said, what does it say about the state of today's fiction that such a poorly executed novel could be nominated for so many prizes? But read on, because we may both be wrong.

It begins as Tassie, a college student in Troy, New York, is looking for a job that will start at the beginning of January term. Coming from the small town of Dellacrosse, Troy seems dazzlingly cosmopolitan to her, and there are funny snippets of her appreciation its glories—Chinese food! a man wearing jeans and a tie!—and mocking recollections of her hometown's charms. She eventually lands a job as a babysitter for a couple who don't yet have a baby.

The plot meanders around as she goes home for Christmas, returns, goes on scouting expeditions with her employer, Sarah, and sometimes Sarah's creepy husband, Edward, to check out prospective babies for adoption. Eventually, a baby is acquired as a foster child while the adoption proceeds. Other than the baby, none of the characters is particularly likeable. Tassie is—so I am informed—like many young people today (though none of the many I know): sad, discouraged, drifting through life, substituting humor for thought and impulse for decision. The title is explained early and often.

Although a couple of people in my book club liked the book, others shared my two main concerns: plot and character. The plot is all over the place, wandering off in different directions and getting bogged down in lengthy scenes that add nothing to the story. People pop up at the beginning and then disappear until the end. The climaxes seem tacked on to provide drama. As for the characters, they start out rather two-dimensional with a quirk or two pasted on, and then do not develop in the course of the story. A couple of them get sadder.

One person suggested that perhaps these seeming flaws were deliberate on the part of the author. Since the book is from Tassie's point of view, it is only too likely that she experiences the world as chaotic and unstructured and people as cardboard with amusing quirks. It's an interesting idea. If true, well, it takes a lot of courage to write such a poorly crafted novel. Perhaps the idea was that the humor would make up for the lack of narrative structure and character development. It certainly is very funny. Moore also employs amazingly original yet apt metaphors.

Perhaps the most interesting comment from my book club was from a person who compared Sarah and Edward to the characters in The Great Gatsby. As Fitzgerald famously said, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” I would say this is true of all the characters, not just Sarah and Edward. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate for the book to be carelessly crafted. Perhaps it is indeed deliberate.

Baffled by how such a book could have garnered so many awards and ovations, I broke from my usual practice of waiting to read reviews until I had completed this blog post. The critics universally seemed to praise it as an extraordinary book, even as some noted the problems I've mentioned. Readers were less forgiving, awarding many one-star reviews. Most of the four- and five-star reviews started out by saying the reader was a huge fan of Lorrie Moore. Maybe what is at work here is something like what used to happen in figure skating when a champion put in a poor performance in the finals and the judges still gave him or her a 6, based more on the entire career than that performance.

What do you think? Do you find reviews helpful? Do you find a significant difference between reviews by critics and by readers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>