Reviews for Gate at the Stairs

Booklist Reviews 2009 July #1
*Starred Review* Readers of Moore's other works will feel right at home with this one, which recounts a year in the life of college student Tassie Keltgin. Although not completely part of her small Wisconsin farming community (her mother is Jewish, her father grows exotic potatoes), she feels adrift in the college town of Troy. She is hired as a child-care provider by Sarah and Edward Brink-Thornwood, sophisticated transplants from the East Coast who are in the process of adopting a child. The child they end up with is Mary, a biracial two-year-old. Sarah, owner of a high-end restaurant, and Edward, a researcher at the university, are curiously uninvolved parents, and Tassie and Mary are left to their own devices more often than not. Tassie herself is "fresh from childhood," as she puts it, her head still stuffed with fairy tales. Through the events of the year, which include sexual initiation, brushes with racism, heartbreaking revelations, and family tragedy, she discovers that the adult world has "grim and gruesome" fairy tales of its own. Moore serves up disorder and disaster but also humor and a feast of recurring themes--the way people use language; the changing of the seasons; food, from mashed bananas for babies to fennel-cured salmon noisettes. The unique vision and exquisite writing cast a spell. Copyright 2009 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2009 September
The Moore the merrier

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.

BookPage Reviews 2010 September
New selections for reading groups

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.



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.



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.

Kirkus Reviews 2009 July #2
In How Fiction Works, the tutorial by the New Yorker critic and Harvard professor, James Wood writes, "Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on."Contemporary fiction has produced few noticers with a better eye and more engaging voice than Tassie Keltjin, the narrator of Lorrie Moore's deceptively powerful A Gate at the Stairs. For much of Moore's first novel in 15 years--her short stories have established her as something of a Stateside Alice Munro--Tassie's eye and ear are pretty much all there is to the book.And they are more than enough, for the 20-year-old college student makes for good company. Perceptive, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, she lulls the reader into not taking the matter-of-fact events of Tassie's life too seriously, until that life darkens through a series of events that even the best noticers might not have predicted.Because her ostensible roommate now lives with a boyfriend, we get to know Tassie very well--as a fully fleshed character rather than a type--and spend a lot of time inside her head. She splits her year between the university community more liberal than the rest of the Midwest and the rural Wisconsin town where her father is considered more of a "hobbyist" farmer than a real one."What kind of farmer's daughter was I?" she asks. A virgin, but more from lack of opportunity than moral compunction (she compares her dating experiences to an invisible electric fence for dogs), and a bass player, both electric and stand-up. Singing along to her instrument, she describes "trying to find the midway place between melody and rhythm--was this searching not the very journey of life?"Explains Moore of her protagonist, "Once I had the character and voice of Tassie I felt I was on my way. She would be the observer of several worlds that were both familiar and not familiar to her…Initially I began in the third person and it was much more of a ghost story and there were a lot of sisters and, well, it was a false start."It's hard to imagine this novel working in the third person, because we need to see Tassie's life through her eyes. As she learns some crucial lessons outside the classroom, the reader learns as well to be a better noticer. Tassie's instincts are sound, but her comic innocence takes a tragic turn, as she falls into her first serious romance, finds a job as nanny for an adopted, biracial baby and suffers some aftershocks from 9/11 a long way from Manhattan. The enrichment of such complications makes this one of the year's best novels, yet it is Tassie's eye that makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.First printing of 100,000. Author tour to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Madison, Wis., Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Copyright Kirkus 2009 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 May #1
Wry, dry, and funny 'til it hurts, Moore has always been an eyewitness to America, and here she digs even deeper, probing war, racism, and betrayal post-9/11. With a 13-city tour; reading group guide. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 August #1

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

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2009 July #2

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.