A Gate at the Stairs

by Lorrie Moore

Paperback, 2010




Vintage (2010), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages


"...As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer--his 'Keltjin potatoes' are justifiably famous--has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Between semesters, she takes a job as a part-time nanny. The family she works for seems both mysterious and glamorous to her, and although Tassie had once found children boring, she comes to care for, and to protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own. As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed..."--dust cover flap.… (more)

Media reviews

As the drifts of perfectly turned moments mount up about the reader's shoulders, along with a corresponding paucity of dramatic incident, forward motion becomes increasingly difficult. Moore is a great writer, but you wish that every once in a while, she would settle for just being good.
5 more
Moore has performed a brilliant feat. She has retained the shining, fluid, and, yes, funny surface of her earlier work. But she has also given us a narrator who attempts to peer through the shimmering veil of language to the truth behind.
Associated Press
What Moore crafts is so like life that to condemn Tassie for the ways in which she fails and falls short as a person would demand that we examine such behavior in ourselves. Thank goodness this book is funny, otherwise, it would be nearly unbearable.
Aggressively clever, meticulously crafted -- and exhausting.
Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at once — unmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She’s a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one.
Ms. Moore has written her most powerful book yet, a book that gives us an indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Tassie Keltjin is a 20 year old student at a major university in Troy, a moderately sized and liberal Midwestern city, who answers an ad placed by a couple who seeks to adopt a child. She is the half Jewish daughter of farmers in a small town, somewhat naïve and quirky, and is entranced by her
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employers, an owner of a French restaurant who is also half Jewish and even quirkier than Tassie, and her husband, a biomedical researcher who is not associated with the university. The couple adopt a biracial child who soon becomes the focus of a relatively benign racial attack by a local youth, which triggers a response by those in the community that are horrified that such a thing could take place in Troy, "the Athens of the Midwest".

Tassie continues her studies and her job as a part-time nanny for the child, falls in love with a mysterious student, and engages with her troubled family and even more troubled roommate. At the same time the adoptive couple faces their own issues, especially a past incident that comes to light after the adoption is approved.

I found A Gate at the Stairs to be a frustrating, maddening, and intensely distasteful novel, as Moore attempted to do too much with this novel, and its characters, especially the adoptive couple, were either despicable, overly quirky, or inscrutable. Was this supposed to be a novel about post-9/11 America? One about racism, or multiculturalism, or the contrast between the rural towns and university cities in the Midwest? Maybe it's supposed to be a coming of age novel? A love story, perhaps? It was ultimately none of these things, as it handled these topics in a most superficial and demeaning manner. Avoid this book like the plague.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
Tassie Keltjin is a multi talented college student, the offspring of potato farmers in the mid-West (who raise legendary potatoes, in demand by upscale restaurants everywhere). In the year following 9/11, she plays the bass skillfully, is on a quest for her first boyfriend, loves reading Sylvia
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Plath, Chaucer and the like, and, to make ends meet, takes on a job as a nanny for multi-racial MaryEmma, foster child of Sarah Brink and her husband, Edward, who are awaiting formal adoption proceedings. It is Tassie who tells her story, and author Lorrie Moore who provides a storyline that centers on the new role of terrorists in our lives and the themes of loneliness, racism, loss and war. Because above all else, Tassie is lonely.

Her roommate leaves her and moves in with her boyfriend and so, when a Brazilian student shows an interest in her, Tassie falls hook, line and sinker and experiences her first sexual encounter. Her relationship with Reynaldo simmers along, as she drags MaryEmma with her to his apartment. Just when the loneliness seems to be diminishing, Reynaldo lays a bombshell at her feet that sends Tassie reeling.
At around the same time, Sarah provides a bombshell of her own and Tassie must rediscover herself as she renews her relationship with her former roommate and counts on her family to reel her in from the darkness.

Back home on the farm, Tassie and her father form a partnership to harvest this year’s crop after celebrating her brother’s high school graduation. Just when things seem to be turning around for her, the unthinkable happens and Tassie is, once again, looking into the abyss.

Moore’s style is to heavily lay on the sarcasm and humor and that makes her message all the more potent. I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion before she got into her really heavy narrative later in the book:

“Sarah pulled the phone from her bag and slowed the car slightly while she did. ‘Excuse me,’ she said to me. ‘Yeah?’ she said into the phone. All this despite the bumper sticker on her car that read, PERHAPS YOU WOULD DRIVE BETTER WITH THAT CELL PHONE SHOVED UP YOUR ASS. She also had one that said, IF GOD SPEAKS THROUGH BURNING BUSHES, LET’S BURN BUSH AND LISTEN TO WHAT GOD SAYS. It was interesting to me that such a woman, one with such rhetorical violence adhered to her car, had gotten past the adoption agency’s screening processes, whatever they were. She also had a third bumper sticker that said, BORN FINE THE FIRST TIME---though cell phones and Christianity were going to be the very things to bring her a child. Her fourth was no more promising: BEHIND EVERY SUCCESSFUL WOMAN IS HERSELF.

A good book, not a great book but enjoyable, nonetheless. Moore gives us a lot to think about in this post 9/11 age and her talent at crafting a sentence is unbelievable.
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LibraryThing member womansheart
Why not just title the book "Safety Devices Can be an Illusion"

Lorrie Moore's novel, [A Gate at the Stairs] plumbs the depth's of regret and loss and the lofty physical flights, and concomitant feelings often accompanying romantic love.

The central characters in the book are a young, raised on a
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Wisconsin hobby farm, white, college student and the white couple (restaurant owner - Mom/scientist and researcher - Dad) who hire her to care for their newly adopted bi-racial daughter.

A big plus here, is Moore's wonderful writing that is able to both capture and reveal the subtleties of the events in the lives of the characters, not only the primary ones, but the Greek chorus that supports and moves the story along as it does so capably through their finely tuned supporting roles.

Although, I have read other of Ms. Moore's writing, I found the form of the novel to give her the time, format, length and the opportunity to give the reader a more fulfilling and emotional tour de force. If you are looking for wit in the form of irony and are willing to feel/observe "deeper than most" levels of angst and grief, both repressed and deeply felt, you will find that experience through this story and it's characters. In other words, while this can be a Summer read, it goes places that one might better leave for cozier Fall and Winter reads snugged up under the afghan and maybe a small blaze in the stove or fireplace. And, perhaps a friend to chat with from time to time to balance the real world with the world of the novel.

Racism, the build up of the war in Afghanistan, adoption struggles and rewards, the exposing of life changing experiences from the past that are revealed, physical attraction and the feeling of being in love all contribute to the vivid moments of this novel.

There are a few distractions here and there with repetitive scenes including dialogue that becomes stale and descriptions of nature that, while poetic, might be distracting to some readers and does not move the story forward, but, does reveal the importance of Nature in the character's (or the author's) life. Weather is close to being a character in itself in Wisconsin.

I recommend this book to readers who are ready for "Moore", the writer, and "more" than only looking at the surface and activities of life.
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LibraryThing member mckait
This is the story of families. Two families, that are broken in different ways. The book is told in the voice of Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of one of these families.

Tassie is the daughter of a potato farmer. He is successful in his own way, but has a laid back attitude to pretty much everything.
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Still, he is a man with heart. Her mother is a little on the vague side, and has some problems of her own that keep her from being fully invested in the lives of her two children.

Tassie goes to college, and in her search for a job as a babysitter, she is drawn into the lives of Edward and Sarah who are in process of adopting a baby. But of course, no one is really as they first appear, and so it is with this couple.

Her unusual job description has Tassie meeting birth mothers and giving some weak and inexperienced support to people she doesn't know. She has a personal life too, of course.
And as a young pretty woman, meets a young pretty man and falls enthusiastically into a relationship that eventually affects her position as a babysitter.

This is a sad story, but not a depressing one. It is really a story of life. Growing, learning, loving and guilt of course. There is always guilt. Do not make the mistake of labeling this one as fluff. It is much more than that. It is a good story, well told. The characters are compelling interesting, down to the ones who appear only for a moment. I recommend this for a good solid relaxing read.
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
For the first half of A Gate at the Stairs, I was quite taken with the book. The writing is often very good, the narrator is likable and tells the story with a strong voice, and the atmosphere Moore creates is both gentle and realistic. But at the halfway point, I realized that I didn't understand
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why the book was telling me the stories it was. What does the narrator's stint as a babysitter for a white family adopting a mixed-race child have to do with her brother's high school graduation and decisions about joining the army? What work does the tragic backstory of those adoptive parents do in the narrative about a college girl's coming of age? Could all of these things be related? Well, sure. I can certainly think of ways they might be. But I didn't see those connections on the page, and that left me wondering what the book was meant to be about, what is was doing, in ways that didn't feel satisfying. I also became over-aware of Moore's use of imagery; it often felt as if she were packing images in left and right because they had come to her, with no consideration for whether those images worked well together.

Ultimately, I have quite mixed feelings about A Gate at the Stairs. In many ways I enjoyed the book very much (I don't feel in any way that I've wasted my time reading it), but in the end it doesn't quite deliver on the greatness its opening promises.
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LibraryThing member MikeFinn
I first encountered Lorrie Moore via her short story collection “Birds of America”. I loved her use of language and her ability to make you give everything a second glance and find something new. Most of all I loved the honesty of the emotions she expressed.

I wondered whether she would be able
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to sustain that in a novel. It seems to me that there is a tendency in novels to have a lot of the text there simply to move things along. The text is mechanical, sometimes sleekly efficient and admirable in its own way, but not inherently beautiful.

Moore’s novel is written with the same attention to language as her short stories. This is not to say that the novel lacks pace or structure but rather that the pace is fueled by a strong sense of place and character and the structure has beauty etched through every strut and brace.

Here’s an example:

Our narrator is a twenty year old college student, a country girl with little experience of life beyond her farm, who is interviewing for a part-time job looking after children. She is meeting a prospective employer

“I’m Tassie Keltjin;” I said thrusting out my hand.

She took it and then studied my face.. “Yes,” she said slowly,
absently unnervingly scrutinizing each of my eyes.Her gaze made a slow
, observing circle around my nose and mouth. “I’m Sarah Brink,” she
said finally. I was not used to being looked at close up, not used to
the thing I was looking at looking back. Certainly my own mother had
never done such looking, and in general my face had the sort of
smooth, round stupidity that did not prompt the world’s study.I had
always felt as hidden as the hull in a berry, as secret and as fetal
as the curled fortune in a cookie, and such hiddenness was not without
its advantages, its egotisms, its grief-fed grandiosities.

Text like this I can taste. I sip at it the way I would a good wine. Recalling it makes me smile. This is how I would like to be able to write.

There is more to this book than exquisite language. Lorrie Moore let’s us share a year or so in a young woman’s life when she is learning about the world and her place in it and the pain and the joys that it contains.

She manages to move her story forward in a way that reflects life as we experience it: each day is a new an undefined until it slides onto the pearl-string of the past that we carry with us and understand only when we look back and not always then.

She keeps the immediacy of experience, the heat of emotion, the sense of being adrift in our own lives, of never quite knowing who we are or what we expect of ourselves until we are too late to go back and change the choices that have made us less than we wanted to be.

The book brims with ideas, small moments of joy embedded in an underlying anxiety, changes in perception that slowly acknowledge the reality of things we cannot control, escapes into music and solitude and friendships and one huge tidal wave of grief that changes everything or perhaps just reveals the true form of what was always there.

This is a book that you should give yourself up to. Experience it as directly as you can, a page at a time. As each page slides on the to the string that we have been taught to think of as a novel, your perception will change and mature.

This is one of those books that will stay with me. One that I will reach for and read small fragments of so I can refresh my memory
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
I approached this book cautiously because I had read several less-than-glowing reviews of it on LT. In the end, my feelings about it are mixed.

Moore does write beautifully. Even though I was listening to the book on audio (a format that doesn't allow me to luxuriate in language), I enjoyed her
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descriptive language. However, sometimes I felt as though the language overshadowed the storyline and the characters. I was almost distracted by it.

The main character in this book is Tassie Keltjin, a student at a Midwestern University. Tassie takes a job as a nanny for Sarah Brink, who adopts an African American daughter. Tassie becomes a part of the Brink household, while also dealing with challenges in her own family and navigating the college experience. I was fascinated by Moore's attention to detail. I teach at a Midwestern University, and I was often surprised by the accuracy of small details in the story.

I also found Tassie an interesting main character. She is bright and observant, providing a window on the the divergent worlds in the book. However, sometimes she was a bit much. Moore seems determined to show us how bright Tassie is. The thoughts in her head seem a bit esoteric for most college students.

And finally, the plot. What to say? Well, probably nothing that won't give the whole thing away. So, suffice it to say that I am still trying to figure out the purpose of the fate of the Brink family. It felt somewhat unbelievable - especially when added to the other challenges that faced Tassie's family at the end of the book.

In all, I think that I'd like to read some of Moore's short stories. The intricate language and surprising plot twists might work better in that format. But I'm not sorry that I read A Gate at the Stairs if for no other reason than to enjoy the way that Moore can paint a picture with striking accuracy.
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LibraryThing member naphta0853
Disappointing considering the wait.
LibraryThing member wingstitch
I love this book. It is certainly one of the best of the year.

All members of the cast, even minor ones, are carefully drawn and original. All have fully formed characters, even the young ones.
Some are bad people, but even the bad people have redeeming qualities. I may be a bit biased, as Moore's
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Dellacrosse seems to be located within walking distance of my home. But these people are recognizable to me. Their behavior is extreme in some cases, but not unbelievable.

One of the most endearing things about the book, and one I hope it will be remembered for, is the ridiculously circular discussion of race and racial politics that goes on each Wednesday night. The same points are made again and again. I had not noticed this in my discussions of race issues, but now that Lorrie Moore has pointed it out, I see that every single attempt to bridge these gaps has had exactly the same result. Nothing ever changes. Perhaps we should start sparing ourselves the pain and find another way to spend the time contributing something more concrete?
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LibraryThing member jnavia
Lorrie Moore is just sooooo very clever and witty. I imagine that for the last decade, she's made little notes whenever she's thought of something clever to write, and this novel is a compilation of those notes pasted over a framework of a somewhat interesting but implausible story. I like wit and
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I found myself chuckling many times, so I don't know why this constant witticism bothered me so much. There were times when I wanted to rip my mp3 player off my arm and throw it across the room.The narrator's annoyingly precise pronunciation of every syllable added to my perception of the narrator as someone more interested in generating witticisms and being thought well of than of telling the story. The story itself (or two stories rather -- one of the narrator and her family, and one of the narrator and the family she is employed by) had me rolling my eyes and saying 'yeah, right' a number of times. Still, the plot kept my interest and I stayed with it until the end. I just finished listening to it, so maybe in a few days I can decide whether I liked it despite its flaws. I haven't felt so divided about whether or not I liked a book in a long time.
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LibraryThing member theanalogdivide
"Omit needless words," goes the old saw from Strunk and White. For the longest time, I've taken that to mean that all prose should be stripped to its barest elements. When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, the writing becomes inert, lifeless. If you think the above phrase could be shortened to
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"omit words," it may be time to consider another career. Luckily, Lorrie Moore is not one of those writers. Her writing is full of words, and the protagonist's interior monologue bounces and digresses all over the place as the story takes her from college to her tiny farm home, to the life of the uptight bobo family whose adopted daughter she takes care of. The result? Tassie feels like a lived-in character, someone I know well, and whose story I wish to keep hearing from, despite all its busyness. It's making me reconsider many of my internal rules about good writing, and it was just the shakeup I needed. Lorrie Moore uses a lot of words, but they're all the right ones.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
Lorrie Moore has written beautifully about complex issues. The adoption of a racially mixed child by a severely damaged white couple ends badly when the child is returned to the adoption agency when the history of the adoptive couple becomes known. Tassie, hired as a baby sitter for the child, is
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experiencing difficulties with her first unrequited love affair with a man who isn't what he portrays himself to be. Lorrie Moore's use of the very repetitive Wednesday night sessions of people with racially mixed children became an irritant for me. Her prose is flawless and witty, but there were unresolved issues that left me wondering why the book ended when it did.
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LibraryThing member KatherineOwen
Lorrie Moore is an inspiration. Her writing is like reading music--lyrical, enveloping, and magical.
LibraryThing member RobinDawson
There is so much to recommend Moore, yet it wasn't a very satisfying novel.

Among the positives - she's a very astute observer of contemporary society, and there's nothing she doesn't know about how college kids think and feel. She has a fine ear for the particularities of language among subgroups,
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and a brilliant sense of humour. Very sharp and very funny. The novel tackles some very big issues - adoption, racism, war.

Yet....as a whole it left me unsatisfied. The story is uneven, lumpy and jumpy. It starts out about adoption and then the focus shifts elsewhere. At times there are sentences, paragraphs or whole sections that seem to have arrived from another planet. I couldn't make out what they were about. And while the humour is great it gets out of control. It works well in the fist half of the book (about Tassies college life and becoming a babysitter), but it becomes increasingly inappropriate as the material shifts to much darker territory. Cracking jokes and word puns when the subject is serious just serves to distance the reader.
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LibraryThing member BBleil
I'm not sure what to rate this book. I hover between a 3 and 2. Parts of it were very witty and funny, other parts tiring to read, particularly the descriptions about weather and flowers. I work with college-aged young adults and they don't pay attention to those things. The wednesday night
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conversations were funny but got routine. I lost momentum toward the end, although I really liked the last scene.
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LibraryThing member jackiefox
The way she describes things is so amazing I have to keep going back and rereading. Just one example is how she calls a fortune cookie a "short paper nerve baked in an ear." There are many, many more.
LibraryThing member aschrader
What a gorgeous book: wry, spot-on dialogue; lushly crafted descriptions; and exactly the right amount of sentiment. I am late in coming to Lorrie Moore's work, but I will definitely be seeking out more.
LibraryThing member queencersei
A Gate at the Stairs begins with the story of college student Tassie Keltjin, who takes a part-time job as a nanny for upper-middle class Edward and Sarah Thornton-Brink. Tassie juggles school, visits to her small mid-western hometown, long-absent roommate Murph and a brief college fling along with
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her duties as a nanny. But it is Tassie’s relationship with Sarah and baby Mary-Emma that becomes the center of the story.

At first Tassie seems charmed by the Brink’s, though their idiosyncrasies often leave her baffled. Tassie develops a close bond with their adopted daughter, Mary-Emma. However, all is not what it seems with the Brink’s and eventually Tassie learns of the dark secret they have been hiding from that shatters the family apart.

The novel shines when it focuses on Tassie and her interactions with the Brink family. But too often the novel becomes bogged down in overly descriptive narration that goes on and on. Not only do these tangents not progress the story along, but often they merely serve as a jarring distraction from the story. This is unfortunate because without all the unnecessary narration, A Gate at the Stairs could have been a good read. Instead it feels more like a short story that was plumped up to fill the necessary page requirements to make it a novel.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
After reading some of the other reviews, I have seen my feelings articulated. I love her use of language as well as the subtle entertaining comments of the characters. I do agree with those that viewed the Wednesday nights as a statement about saying the same thing over and over again. I also see
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the point that this did not add to the book. I found that the last portions of the plot about the brother and boy friend to be add ons to the book that didn't really contribute. I thought that the emphasis on Sarah etc. was more than enough. Very disappointed that Sarah dropped out of the book. Would rather have seen that part of the plot resolved better, rather than suddenly throwing the brother into the mix. The email that never got readd(from the brother) was a cliche devise that seemed beneath Lorrie's talent level. I will try to read all of her work because I love her talent and use of langauage. She does a great job of getting to subtle feelings and observations. I know this book is ending up on a lot of top 10 lists but as one who reads 50-60 novels a year, I would say that I have read at least 10 that I would rate higher.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Tassie Keltjin is a naive Midwestern farm girl entering her freshman year in a hip University town obviously modeled after Madison, Wisconsin. She becomes a nanny for Sarah and Edward, an excruciatingly yuppie couple adopting a biracial child, and enters into her first love affair, with a
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mysterious student who improbably claims he is Brazilian. Meanwhile, at home, her younger brother is deciding whether to enlist in the Army, on the heels of the 9/11 attacks.

I haven't read Lorrie Moore before, and I was struck by her mixture of very different tones throughout the novel, an interesting mosaic of snark and lyricism. The flippant college-girl tone is something that I (being a codger) usually despise, but it's mitigated by the narrator's clumsy innocence - and anyway, much of the flippant remarks are truly funny. And along with these funny, biting passages, there are beautifully lyrically passages evoking the natural world. Toward the end, as the book gets plottier, and sadder, you want to slow down and savor every word.
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LibraryThing member tdmatthews
I'm so drawn to Moore's characters that are ill-prepared for the larger world. She described her character, Sidra, in Willing from Birds of America, "she hadn't been given the proper tools to make a real life with...she'd been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told 'There you go'..."

In A
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Gate at the Stairs Tassie Keltjin is similarly trying to navigate a new life with a set of skills that simply aren't adequate. Tassie tries to reconcile new and often tragic experiences with her understanding of the world, which isn't unusual. What makes Moore's writing so magical is that we are placed behind the filter, and are given the privilege of processing all of this love and tragedy through Tassie's language and vocabulary. Tassie's words, their sounds and meanings and sometimes their music, are the scaffolding that Tassie is building to shape the inconceivable.
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LibraryThing member JackieBlem
I read this book a couple of weeks ago, and I've been 'sitting' on it, trying to find something to say about this book. All I can offer is the truth--I did not, in any way, connect with this book. The characters weren't presented in a way I could make them 'real' for me, the story seemed strained
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and implausible, with minutia going on for pages upon pages while major plot and/or character reveals were handled in a sentence or two--if they were lucky. I sloughed through it because it was on the IndieNext list and many people I know and respect were very excited that this book was coming out, but I just cannot recommend anything about this book, other than perhaps to stay away from it.
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LibraryThing member angelswing
I really liked this book! There were so many twists and turns in the plot that I was not expecting. I am a big fan of Morre's writing anyway, but I think this is one of her best books. I enjoyed reading it and recommend it to others.
LibraryThing member RachelWeaver
This book had me laughing unreasonably just minutes before making me sob, just minutes before suffocating me with the weight of grief, before slowly lifting me back on my feet again, and finally even laughing again. And that was just in the last 50 pages. Aside from the mood swings at the end, this
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book contains the most delightfully astute, clever, gorgeous writing I think I have ever seen. You can feel a playfulness in the language, through Moore's character's quips and linguistic foibles and gorgeously detailed descriptions. This book feels so real, it's characters so accurate, you're sure you've not only met them before, but have known them all along.
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LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
Tassie Keltjin is the star of this book. She is college student who gets a job as a nanny for a restaurant owner and her husband who are adopting a baby. The baby they get turns out to be mixed race, which causes some problems along the way.

Tassie sees no situation that does not deserve a
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wisecrack, even in the most inappropriate of circumstances. The humor (which is my style and I appreciated) and mood in the book often reminded me of Vonnegut, although the writing seemed much more literate, or at least striving for a higher level than Kurt was looking for. Near the end of the novel, when the author suddenly used the word “squat” in its slang, equivalent of “nothing” sense, the Vonnegut comparison seemed more obvious.

The author seemed to me to have given up on any sort of plot quite a ways from the end of the book. I found the last 75 pages or so a slow slog.
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