A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs, written by Lorrie Moore, starts out by introducing the book’s protagonist and narrator, Tassie Keltjin, who is recounting her twentieth year. Although written in 2010, the story being described takes place in 2001, when Tassie – a smart but inexperienced Midwestern college student and daughter of a potato cultivator finds work as a soon-to-be babysitter for a brainy couple, Sarah and Edward Brink. At the time of hiring Tassie, the Brinks are childless – which Tassie finds quite unusual – though on the verge of adoption. Sarah Brink runs a fancy restaurant, Le Petit Moulin, and her husband, Edward, is a cancer researcher. The Brinks had recently moved from the East and soon after submitted adoption papers for a 2-year-old, mixed-race girl they have named Mary-Emma, who Tassie bonds with almost immediately.

The main themes in this book revolve around grueling life lessons. The lessons Tassie ends up learning have less to do with trust and betrayal than with the unforeseen costs of emotional inattention and romantic infatuation. She learns how the accumulation of bad luck can strip a person down “to the thinness of a nightgown” and how love for a man, a child, a sibling fails to offer insulation and security from the trials of everyday life. (Kakutani) Starting out, Tassie views the world as this giant place where almost anything can happen and what goes around comes around. But due to her recently learned lessons, she tends to adopt the view of a pessimist. “Death and desert,” Tassie thinks when she sees two bowls, one with cream, the other with an artificial sweetener, “invented accidentally by chemists during a reformulation of insecticide.” They are emblems of the way Tassie eventually regards the world. “Sweetness and doom lay side by side,” she thinks. “I was coming to see that this was not uncommon.” (Charles) Sadly, more than ever, it is not uncommon at all.

This book is one that develops at a somewhat strange pace. It starts off interestingly enough by describing the characters, mainly Tassie, her background, and her current life. After reading for a short while, the book’s plot seems to trail off at the point where the reader might begin to expect more – that doesn’t happen. It almost gives off the impression that the author was trying to fit too many thoughts into too small of a space. I will admit that the book had a good enough story line, and it did leave an impression on me due to the intensity of a few specific issues that were dealt with, but besides the few intriguing chapters that are placed here and there, the plot just sits there. Although well-written and an almost perfect length (not too long, not too short), as stated above, the book leaves the reader expecting more and just to be perfectly clear, it leaves the reader not necessarily wanting more, but nevertheless expecting more.


Charles, Ron. “With Novel Twists, Moore Paints Both Darkness and an Age of Enlightenment.” The Washington Post. N.p., 02 Sep 2009. Web. 04 May 2011.

Kakutani, Michiko. “First Time for Taxis, Lo Mein, and Loss.” The New York Times. N.p., 27 Aug 2009. Web. 04 May 2011.