Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs

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A Gate at the Stairs Summary

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A Gate at the Stairs is a 2009 novel by American author Lorie Moore. Moore became known for her short story collections Self-Help and Birds of America, her dry and oftentimes dark wit lending her writing a distinctive sense of humor. A Gate at the Stairs is not her first venture into the novel format, but it is her most successful and well-received.

The book tells the story of Tassie Keltjin, a college student at a Midwestern university, and starts a few months after 9/11. The novel is told from the perspective of a slightly older Tassie looking back at her early twenties. Tassie is from a nearby small town and has moved to Troy to attend an unnamed university.

As the novel begins, she is looking for a job as a nanny. She is struggling due to having little experience of childcare but finds a woman who is willing to hire her. This woman is Sarah Brink, a chef for an upmarket French bistro, who does not yet have a child; she and her husband Edward are trying to adopt. Sarah brings Tassie to an interview with a potential birth mother for a child but is unsuccessful.

Tassie returns to her hometown of Dellacrosse for Christmas and spends a few weeks with her family. Her father is an organic potato farmer, her mother a distant woman from the East Coast, and her brother is considering dropping out of high school to join the army. Tassie has no friends in the town and finds it boring and unstimulating. When Sarah calls her asking to return to Troy earlier than planned, she accepts.

Sarah and Tassie fly to Green Bay to interview a birth mother whose young child, Mary-Emma, is in foster care. The child is biracial, and there has been little interest in adopting her. Sarah is approved for adoption, and Tassie gets to meet Edward for the first time. He seems aloof and serious, in contrast to Sarah’s jokey attitude, and the relationship seems strained.

Shortly upon returning to Troy, Tassie begins working as a nanny in earnest. She finds herself bonding with Mary-Emma (now called Emmie, after “M.E.”), a fact which seems to distress Sarah when the child seems to like Tassie more than her mother. Edward is often absent and makes Tassie uncomfortable one evening by flirting with her. The adoption is not yet finalized, with Sarah and Edward being foster parents until the paperwork goes through.

One day while out with Emmie, a group of teenagers drives by and shouts a racial slur at the baby. Tassie is shocked and upset, as is Sarah when she recounts the encounter. Sarah decides she is going to hold a support group for biracial families in Troy, and Tassie begins babysitting the children at these events, held at Sarah and Edward’s house. These continue throughout the novel, with Tassie listening in to the conversations. These touch on various subjects of race in America but seem to be going in circles without ever really achieving anything.

Meanwhile, Tassie regularly flirts with Reynaldo, a Brazilian boy in one of her classes. They start out by passing notes to each other, and then go for coffee. She asks him to teach her some words of Portuguese, which she only later finds out are a mixture of Spanish and Italian. Tassie starts spending a lot of time at his apartment, bringing Emmie along with her. One day, Tassie decides to frame and print a photo Reynaldo has taken of Emmie and offer it to Sarah as a present. Sarah reacts negatively, asking Tassie who took the photo. She tells her to stop taking Emmie to Tassie’s “friend’s” house.

Tassie agrees but continues seeing Reynaldo. She is infatuated with him, and they begin a casual sexual relationship. One evening, she goes to his apartment to find it emptied of everything but his prayer rug (which Tassie the narrator admits she had thought was a yoga mat). She begins to piece together things like his inconsistent accent and some strange ideas about America, and she accuses him of being a jihadist. He denies being part of a cell, but ends the relationship saying he is being investigated. After an argument, Tassie leaves, brokenhearted.

Sarah tells Tassie she needs to tell her something. Throughout various conversations, during which they keep getting interrupted, Sarah tells Tassie about her and Edward’s past. Sarah and Edward had lived in Massachusetts, their real names are Susan and John. They had a young child called Gabriel, a boy with a bad disposition and a habit of misbehaving.

One day, while driving on a busy road, Gabriel had been annoying John, pulling his hair and hitting him with a shoe. Angry, John had made the child get out of the car at a rest stop, despite Susan’s protestations. As they were making their way around back to the rest stop, the child had tried to cross the road to get to them. He had been hit by a car and died. John and Susan were cleared of all charges, their loss deemed to be punishment enough.

Susan, now Sarah, carries the guilt of having let her husband put their child in danger. She reveals that the adoption agency has found out about the incident and is threatening to take Emmie away. She is considering just letting it happen, as she thinks she is too busy to be a mother and Edward is not a good father. She also thinks Emmie would be better off with non-white parents.

Eventually, the adoption agency does come to take the child away. Sarah is distraught, and Tassie is also upset, having grown to love the child. At the end of the semester, Tassie returns home and sees her brother graduate. He asks her why she didn’t reply to an email he sent her, and she shrugs this off. Robert leaves to join the military and Tassie keeps as busy as she can, working in her father’s farm.

One day, they receive news that Robert has died in Afghanistan. The military gives contradictory accounts of how he died, and no satisfactory explanation of why he had been shipped so soon. Tassie finds the email and sees that he had asked her for advice on joining the military and had said he would do whatever she told him to. Distraught, Tassie does not return to college in the fall but goes back after Thanksgiving. She receives a phone call from Edward, who tells her Sarah has moved back to New York and asks her to dinner. She is dumbfounded, and he hangs up.

A Gate at the Stairs received high praise upon its release, particularly for its depiction of the anxieties of post-9/11 American society. Though some reviewers agreed that Moore had a tendency to drift off during key moments of the story, and that her insistence on using humor and wordplay was distracting, the book was generally lauded as a “brilliant feat” (Claire Dederer, Slate).