Is there a writer more perceptive than Lorrie Moore? In both her novels and short story collections, she’s displayed unnerving insight into people and all their mesmerizing, exasperating strangeness. Her remarkable new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, chronicles a year in the life of 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin, a farmer’s daughter attending college in a liberal oasis of the Midwest soon after 9/11. Moore’s prose is singularly contemplative and alert, suffused with anxiety and wordplay: A woman’s face has a look of “bravado laced with doom, like fat in meat”; overheard voices “sound seasick, or shopworn, or shot down, or like a station on the radio.”
As Tassie shivers through the punishing cold of her spring semester, she works as a nanny for a white, bourgeois couple, Sarah and Edward, who have just adopted an interracial baby. The child’s provenance is the source of much hand wringing, but Tassie’s devotion to her young charge is pure and unhesitating. Sarah, though, is harder to pin down: she’s a tangled ball of nerves and ambitions, both ushering Tassie closer to the family’s inner circle and pushing her away. Awkwardness and crossed signals stand in for honesty, and secrets threaten to disturb an already delicate balance.
If these relationships”—driven by agendas and ego”—form the heart of the book, Tassie herself is its pulse. Moore has crafted a real person, with a life that spills outside any boundaries drawn up to contain her. And so after a dizzying semester, Tassie goes to spend the summer on her family’s farm, and her story shifts into something sober and timeless. As she roams through fields and reflects on the quiet around her, dialogue falls away, and her next steps are uncertain. Occasionally, Moore offers a subtle reminder that her heroine is narrating from some indistinct, clued-in future, and that narrative distance offers both perspective and gravity. “What was education for, if not to acquire contradictions?” Tassie wonders early in the book. By its difficult, winning conclusion, she has earned her share of them, and we’ve arrived somewhere brutally sad and almost unbearably wise.