Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Review: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore is one of those books I kept hearing about. I think I first saw a book review in print somewhere or other. From the summary of the plot, it didn't sound all that appealing, so I didn't add it to my tbr list. Then I read a review on someone's blog. Ah, that book again. The review was good, but I still wasn't interested. But then I started to see it reviewed over and over again and all the reviews were glowing. I figured I should check it out.

A Gate at the Stairs tells the story of Tassie Keltjin, a college student in the Midwest. Tassie takes a job as a nanny for a white couple who are adopting a biracial little girl - three year old Emmie. In addition, Tassie is experiencing her first serious romance with a fellow college student and also dealing with the reality of her growing independence from her family.

At first, the story really did grab me. But then I began to notice something about the writing. I couldn't really put my finger on it. The writing was good, very good - but not in a way I could describe. It wasn't poetic or clever or beautiful. And then I figured it out - it was intelligent.

And that's why it lost me. I think this book is what you would call a "literary novel". And I usually don't like novels that are too "literary". Somehow I always feel that the story takes a back seat to the writing. And I'm just not intellectual enough to appreciate that kind of book. I appreciate good writing and I consider myself to be a discerning reader, but I read for the story first and the writing second. Unfortunately, the story in A Gate at the Stairs was sacrificed for amazing writing, in my opinion.

The other problem I had with Moore's "intelligent" writing is that she spent pages and pages and pages describing the thought process of Tassie, the main character. At first I enjoyed reading Moore's deft description of the inner workings of Tassie's mind, but after a while I just wanted to get back to the story.

Ah, the story. What exactly was the story in A Gate at the Stairs? From my perspective, there were three very serious and important story lines in this book. And Moore didn't do any of them justice. She started and stopped each one without ever really fully telling any. I really wanted to know more about the main storyline. Why did she need to add two more unfinished plots to this book. It felt very disjointed to me.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe A Gate at the Stairs is supposed to be a reader's view into Tassie's mind - hence all the pages and pages of her thoughts. And these three plot lines were all different things Tassie was dealing with in her life. And of course, in real life nothing gets resolved in 321 pages (or one semester of college). But for me, that adds up to a very unsatisfactory read. Even if it is intelligent and literary.

Have any of you read A Gate at the Stairs? What did you think? I'd love to hear from you. Especially if you loved it. What was it about that book that you loved?

Iwould give A Gate at the Stairs 2 STARS - It was OK.


Karen said...

I have not read it, and I have to say that this really doesn't sound like my kind of book.

Grace's Mom said...

I am so bummed! I haven't read it, but I've heard about it. The story and the main character seem like something I would enjoy, but I don't like overly-written books...not in the least.

Thanks for the review!

Midlife Jobhunter said...

I've read short stories by Lorrie Moore. I have wanted to read this book, but think it will have to be when in a certain frame of mind. I admire your stating exactly what you like in a book. And that you are not intelligent enough to read the literary writing? I don't think so. But I know what you mean. Sometimes the writing sets the scene, but bogs us down.

Jen said...

I'm curious so I'm adding it to my list. If I get around to reading it soon, I'll let you know what I think. Right now I'm in the middle of "The Secret Life of Bees" and I'm starting "A Moveable Feast" for Real Simple's Book Club (I actually already read the book in college, but I liked it and really wanted to participate, so I'm reading it again!).

Diane said...

I thought this book (audio edition) was awful. I did not like it at all.

Sandy said...

I haven't read it and don't think I will after reading this. Sounds like something I would have to slog through which never works for me. Thanks for reading it so I don't have to.

Jenny said...

Literary novels rarely hold my attention. I'm just a dolt about that kind of stuff.

"Cottage By The Sea" said...

Haven't read that book yet but put it into consideration. By the way, loved the BON over at WOW today!

WhiteSockGirl aka The Fabulous Bitch said...

What an honest review. Did not read the book, not sure if I will now. But I am intrigued by the main storyline.

Tina said...

Your description of the 'literary novel' and your expectations is spot on. I've never quite been able to explain why I like or don't like certain books, but you have really helped crystalize my thinking. I finally understand why I don't like Anne Tyler's books for example.

Thanks for an honest review. I may flip through this one if I see it on an honor shelf, but it's not going on my "get your hands on it quick" list, that's fershur.


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