Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs is a coming-of-age tale narrated by a 20 year old university student called Tassie. Tassie is the daughter of a boutique potato farmer in Dellacrosse and has come to Troy to attend a liberal-arts university. The story spans one year, and during this year, Tassie experiences a lot, including working as a nanny to a ‘biracial’ adopted child called Mary-Emma, and falling in love for the first time with a fellow student.

One thing I should mention before reviewing this book is that I am Australian and have never been to the US. What I know about the US I have learnt from television, movies and a couple of American friends. I have a feeling that most of the cultural references and a lot of the humour in this book went over my head.

It is difficult to describe Tassie’s character because I didn’t really get a good idea of what kind of a person she was. What I did feel, however, was that she was extremely annoying. The same could be said for the entire book. I was irritated by it for almost the whole time. If I weren’t reading it for the book club I’m in, I would have abandoned it halfway through. This story is self-indulgent, very boring in places, all over the place plot-wise and littered with characters that are unbelievable.

The story would often be interrupted by a thought process that would take us off on tangents, sometimes lasting for pages. At these times all I could think was ‘why am I being told this? I want to return to the main story.’ There were also many off-putting puns scattered throughout the narration.

The book was also written in such a self-congratulatory, wink-wink-aren’t-I clever kind of way that it was completely distracting. In some places, it was also plain lazy.

‘Not bad for an old gal, eh?’ said Sarah, breathlessly grinning and pink in the cheeks. I made a kind of smile—I have no idea what kind—and we them moved quickly to … (77)

‘I have no idea what kind’?? I’m not sure whether this grates because it’s lazy or because it’s unnecessary. On the one hand, I think that Moore was lazy to not attempt to describe what kind of smile it was, but on the other hand, I think she should have just allowed us to conjure up an image of a smile by simply leaving it at ‘I made a kind of smile’. By inserting the unnecessary extra line my imagination never makes it that far. Instead, my imagination is distracted. And I am annoyed.

Tassie was not the only character I had trouble believing in. Sarah, the adoptive mother to Mary-Emma, was also depicted in a confusing and superficial way. Sarah and Tassie could have been the same character such was their lack of defining qualities. Sarah was initially depicted as somebody who liked to be in control, someone who was desperate to be a mother. Yet she walked away from the hospital after picking up their new baby without looking at the baby’s health records, instead leaving it to her husband, Edward. This was completely unbelievable. But if you don’t develop your characters properly or give them any defining qualities, I suppose you can get away with allowing them to do anything!

The pages-long dialogues that wafted up the stairs to the playroom on Wednesday nights when Sarah and Edward hosted the support group for parents of biracial children were excruciating. Surely there is a better way of getting your point across. I skipped most of these clich├ęd conversations.

Tassie’s foray into love was an absurd twist on the story. If a story is a house, then this subplot was like a renovated bathroom with a chimney in it. I can understand the point of including a love story in a coming-of-age story; I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a romance in a story about a 20 yr old woman starting at university. I actually enjoyed reading about Tassie’s neediness and clingy desire to be loved, because that’s what I was like when I was younger (I like to think I’ve grown out of it?!), and it felt real. But what happened when the relationship ended was ridiculous, clumsy and completely transparent in its attempt at saying something profound about Islam, terrorism and the US. After this, the book went further downhill, spiralling into something that was almost unbearable. I didn’t care what happened anymore; I didn’t care about Tassie’s family; I didn’t care about Tassie herself.

The main plot about the adopted child Mary-Emma and her parents Sarah and Edward was intriguing and I think Moore should have kept the plot limited to this. There was a lot she could have done with this situation. Tacking on two other subplots (the romance and one other, which I can’t mention without spoiling it) was a mistake.

This book suffered not only from the messiness of its plot, but also from the lack of plausibility in its characters and its irritating, self-indulgent narration. If this is the kind of work that is shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, I don’t think I’ll be taking that prize very seriously anymore.

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