Lorrie Moore fans are a patient bunch. It’s been more than 10 years since her most recent short story collection, and nearly 15 since her last full-length work of fiction, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Fortunately, her latest offering proves well worth the wait.
A Gate at the Stairs, the author’s third novel, is solidly and delightfully Lorrie Moore territory; there’s the isolated, intelligent female narrator who both hides and survives through her humor and nonchalance; the Midwestern landscape that stretches with ennui and possibility; the pithy wordplay that is as haunting as it is lighthearted (“I had been the minibar—and not the minbar—in this temporary room of lodging,” the main character says, after her boyfriend leaves her for the callings of Islam). But mostly there is the “spot-on-ness” that readers have so come to identify with Moore’s work.
Set soon after the events of September 11th, A Gate at the Stairs follows Tassie Keltjin, the 20-year-old daughter of a potato farmer and an undergraduate at a large Wisconsin college who accepts a babysitting job for an upper-class couple. The catch: there is no baby. Or not yet, at least. Rather, the pair is trying to adopt and sees no problem with inviting Tassie to take part in the process. If this sounds odd, that’s because it is—and it only gets more odd once they get their child and Tassie’s nanny duties become increasingly blurred and all-consuming. After all, what is she to them? An intellectual equal and friend? An inferior member of the “help”? Or a sort of middle ground between themselves and the biracial baby for whom they are now responsible?
The plot takes several bizarre twists, and readers may be tempted to skim the passages where other white parents of African-American children talk about social inequity. But ultimately, we avoid the overly didactic as Moore explores everything from race to class to the war in Iraq in a fairly organic fashion—that is, behind the guise of a refreshingly agenda-less narrator and with a voice so pitch-perfect as to appear effortless.
Jillian Quint is an editor at a publishing house in New York. She lives in Brooklyn.
Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
This month's best paperback releases for reading groups include new books from Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth Rosner and Hilary Mantel.
A triumphant return for the beloved author of Birds of America, A Gate at the Stairs is Lorrie Moore's first novel in 15 years. Set in a small Midwestern college town, the narrative focuses on Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old innocent who comes of age quickly, in ways she never dreamed were possible. Tassie balances school with her new responsibilities as a nanny, a job that comes with a catch: Her boss, restaurant owner Sarah Brink, doesn't yet have a baby--she's trying to adopt one. With Tassie along for support, Sarah interviews potential birth mothers, women with their own stories to share, and these eye-opening encounters provide Tassie with new perspectives on life. Meanwhile, Tassie becomes involved with the mysterious Reynaldo, who may be hiding something. Growing up fast but enjoying the ride, Tassie makes for a delightful narrator. She's a smart young woman with a sense of wonder that's refreshing, and Moore's many fans will find her story irresistible. This is a compelling novel that finds the author in top form.
A reading group guide is available online. You can also read our review of the hardcover edition of A Gate at the Stairs.
THE POWER OF ART
A poignant, multilayered novel, Elizabeth Rosner's Blue Nude explores the far-reaching effects of the Holocaust. Danzig, the son of a prominent Nazi, struggles with memories of his sister, Margot, who committed suicide after the war. Once a reputable painter, Danzig, now 58, lives in San Francisco, where he teaches at an art school and flirts with his students. When Merav, the lovely granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, fills in as a model for his drawing class, Danzig feels a surprising connection. Leaving behind a sad past in Israel, Merav has come to America in search of a new life. Stirred by her beauty, Danzig asks Merav to model for him in his private studio, but she is hesitant and elusive. What transpires between the two kindred, sensitive souls makes for an unforgettable story about the transformative power of art and its unique ability to restore the human spirit. Featuring sharply drawn characters and a well-crafted storyline, this is a powerful, probing work of fiction.
A reading group guide is available on Elizabeth Rosner's website.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is set in 16th-century England and presents history-making events--including King Henry VIII's battle with the Catholic Church as he tries to divorce one woman and marry another--from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell comes from a humble family, but he rises to a position of importance at court thanks to his shrewdness, ambition and intelligence. As Henry VIII's indispensable counselor, he has an inside view of royal goings-on and provides the perfect lens for Mantel's delicious drama, in which the seductive Boleyn sisters, the disfavored Queen Katherine and the scheming Thomas More all play prominent roles. Through the use of rich detail and convincing dialogue, Mantel brings a seminal chapter in England's past to vivid life. Her meticulously conceived novel has it all--politics, danger, romance and intrigue. A mesmerizing blend of fact and fiction, it's a must-read for history lovers.
Download a PDF of the reading guide, and find more information on the publisher's website. You can also read our review of the hardcover edition of Wolf Hall.
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
Just months after 9/11, college student Tassie Keltjin, the brilliant daughter of a Midwestern farmer, becomes a part-time nanny for an older white couple who have adopted an African American baby. Enjoying her delightful young charge and reveling in her love affair with her Brazilian boyfriend, Tassie has a growing suspicion that her employers are somehow off. When their identities, as well as her boyfriend's, are blown, Tassie heads home, only to be hit with another, more devastating shock. VERDICT Moore uses the same kind of poetic precision of language found in her dazzling short story collections (e.g., Birds of America) to draw the reader into her long-awaited third novel (after Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?). The challenge for readers is to reconcile the beautiful sharpness of her language with two wildly improbable plot threads. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/09.]--Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI[Page 70]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Moore (Anagrams) knits together the shadow of 9/11 and a young girl's bumpy coming-of-age in this luminous, heart-wrenchingly wry novel--the author's first in 15 years. Tassie Keltjin, 20, a smalltown girl weathering a clumsy college year in "the Athens of the Midwest," is taken on as prospective nanny by brittle Sarah Brink, the proprietor of a pricey restaurant who is desperate to adopt a baby despite her dodgy past. Subsequent "adventures in prospective motherhood" involve a pregnant girl "with scarcely a tooth in her head" and a white birth mother abandoned by her African-American boyfriend--both encounters expose class and racial prejudice to an increasingly less nave Tassie. In a parallel tale, Tassie lands a lover, enigmatic Reynaldo, who tries to keep certain parts of his life a secret from Tassie. Moore's graceful prose considers serious emotional and political issues with low-key clarity and poignancy, while generous flashes of wit--Tessie the sexual innocent using her roommate's vibrator to stir her chocolate milk--endow this stellar novel with great heart. (Sept.)[Page 31]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.