Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs is worth the climb

What a boring thing a book club would be if everyone agreed.

While I thought Lorrie Moore's writing in "A Gate at the Stairs" (2009, Knopf, 322 pp., $26.95) was brilliant, my opinion was in the minority at a book club I visited this week.
I relished the witty banter of the novel's main character, Tassie Keltjin with all her youth and naivety.

The story follows Tassie, a Wisconsin farmer's daughter, through a year's worth of experiences at college. In that year the 20-year-old learns some difficult lessons, not just in becoming independent from her family, but in embracing them when there's trouble.

The book was the November pick - and my introduction to - a Thursday night book club at Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton. If you've never been this is a cozy and charming bookstore with lots of tall wood bookcases and cozy old chairs to sit in. The place has ambiance, if I dare say so. And pastries!

There were nine women at this particular meeting, but I'm told men are welcome, too (they're just afraid). The store also has an afternoon book club meeting time, for those who prefer.

At "my" club meeting, there was a relaxed yet passionate discussion of "A Gate At The Stairs," a book that's been aptly described as both strange and moving. My opinion of the book - that it was good - was a minority one. Of the women discussing the book, only one agreed with me that the writing is superb.

Others had strong reactions to Moore's inclusion of several shocking events through the course of the novel. (I'm not going to ruin the book for you by telling you what exactly they are).

It was brought to light that Moore is better-known for her short stories, and writes books less frequently than stories. This is her first novel in something like 15 years. (I am now dying to read some of her stories!) One book clubber said that helped to explain why there were a few different stories going on at once in "A Gate at The Stairs." Tassie and her parents; Tassie and her employer; and Tassie and her boyfriend.

Tassie, who comes from a small farming town, is dazzled by the college-town life. There are exotic foods (such as Chinese), interesting courses (Intro to Wine Tasting), and also exotic males (the Brazilian guy who sits next to her in her Intro to Sufism course). When she finds herself in need of spending money, Tassie respondes to Help Wanted ads seeking child care providers. After interviewing with several suburban moms, Tassie lands a job with the first woman who asks - Sarah Brinkman.

Sarah, who owns and is the chef of an exclusive restaurant in town, is looking for a nanny for a child she and her husband, Edward, are about to adopt. So Tassie is hired before the child arrives, and is asked to accompany Sarah and Edward to Green Bay (her first plane trip) to be part of the adoption process.

The "baby" turns out to be a mixed-race toddler, 2-year-old Mary-Emma, an uncommonly beautiful child with an incongruently sunny disposition. Tassie bonds with the girl, singing to her and taking her for long walks, ice skating on a nearby point, and to the park. It seems that Tassie spends a lot more time with the child than do her parents.

Because Mary-Emma is dark-skinned, and because of some unfortunate comments from ignorant kids (and adults) in town, Sarah starts hosting a Wednesday night meeting for parents dealing with similar race issues to come air their concerns (and drink wine!). Tassie is expected to entertain everyones' kids upstairs in Mary-Emma's room, and proves to be quite adept at it.

Meanwhile, Tassie loses interest in her classes, all of which seem to be rather unrelated to any real major. Her roommate gets a boyfriend and becomes MIA. Her younger brother starts to fail his senior year in high school and considers enlisting (the year is 2001, and there's a lot of that going on, after all) as an alternative to college or technical school.

When Tassie goes home for Christmas, the story runs to her relationship with her mother, which is rather nonexistent, perhaps a bit passive aggressive. (The book club calls her a non-character). Her dad, who farms gourmet potatoes and salad lettuces, seems like an awesome guy, always throwing out witty one-liners and paying attention to his daughter's thoughts. Tassie's close to her brother, but there's still a distance. She spends a lot of the break reading - deep stuff like Plato and Zen poems. When Sarah calls and asks her to come back early from break, Tassie does.

The springtime further reveals Sarah's more prickly nature, and her husband's predilection for the help. Tassie is absorbed with Mary-Emma, and tries to ignore the warning signs that some things aren't as they seem.

As I said before, I'm not going to ruin the surprises that come with the end of the semester. And there are some in this novel.

I recommend this book. It is a little quirky, but I like that. The writing is so well done - as an editor, I guess I reaaaalllly can appreciate that. And it did actually move me to tears (something that happens very infrequently with books ... films and dog food commercials are another story entirely.)

Check out the Wellington Square Bookshop book club - the next meeting is Thursday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. The book is "Strength in What Remains" by Tracy Kidder.

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