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Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs

This may be vaguely described as post-9/11 novel, in that it takes place after 9/11 but, till the end of the novel, when the Bush administration is ratcheting up the war in Afghanistan and there is the possibility of Robert, the heroine/narrator’s brother, going to Afghanistan, 9/11 does not figure very highly in the consciousness of the main characters, not least because the action takes place in the Mid-West where it obviously had less impact than on the East Coast. The narrator is Tassie Keltjin, daughter of Gail and Robert, a young woman who, during the course of the narrative, is moving from being a dependent girl-becoming-a-woman to being an independent woman. Because Moore is such a first-class writer, her movement is neither straightforward in its progression nor decisive in its conclusion. In short, she is one of Moore’s non-winners.

At the start of the novel, Tassie is at university in Troy. She is studying a mixture of subjects ranging from English lit and Sufism to wine tasting and the soundtracks of war films. She shares a room with a woman called Murph who is a colourful character, unlike Tassie herself. However, Tassie’s key interest at the beginning is to find a job and the job she is looking for is baby-sitting. We follow her interviews till she finds Jane Brink. Jane is 45 and is married to Ed who, initially, is too busy with his work to put in an appearance. Jane and Ed are considering adopting. Tassie is immediately hired to go to the complicated interview/selection procedure for the adoption. After a false start, they fly to Green Bay, where they meet the adoption agency and Bonnie, biological mother of the child. The two-year old child is currently with foster parents and Jane and Tassie go there. It is soon clear that the foster parents are less attached to the baby than their teenage daughter is. The child is initially called Mary but Jane wants to add Emma to the name, so she becomes Mary-Emma and then Emmie. The identity of the father is unclear – the adoption agency have been unable to trace him – but we do know that, while Bonnie is white, the father is at least partially black and that the child clearly looks African-American. After a long and complicated process, Jane and Ed (and Tassie) are declared foster parents but there is a trial six month period before they can officially adopt.

Jane runs a fairly posh restaurant in Troy, called Le Petit Jardin. She is continually experimenting with a variety of exotic dishes. As a result, she does not have a great deal time for Emmie and it is Tassie, on whom much of the burden falls. Indeed, a neighbour comments on this fact. Tassie looks after her and takes her out, including skating and other activities which might seem unusual for a two-year old. While she is taking her Sufism class, she meets a man who is apparently Brazilian and called Reynaldo. They start a relationship and Tassie takes Emmie to her meeting with Reynaldo. Moore describes in some detail not only Tassie’s relationship with Emmie but also her relationship with Jane and Ed, as well as with Noel (Noelle), Jane and Ed’s gay cleaner. Indeed, these relationships are the core of the novel. The issue of racism is also key to the novel as the liberal middle class of Troy, including Jane, try to discuss this issue.

But, of course, it doesn’t work out as it should – not with Jane and Ed and Tassie and not with Reynaldo. Murph disappears (to live with her boyfriend) for sometime but reappears. The classes do not go too well. Her parents and brother seem remote and her brother, who is doing badly in school, may join the army and go off to Afghanistan. But, overall, this book is about relationships and about a young woman trying to find out who she is and where she is going and her uncertainties in a world where things are starting to be more uncertain than before. It is Moore’s skill to show us this woman and her relationships in all their aspects.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Knopf