When Tassie Keltjin goes off to college, she's a spunky country girl in love with literature and eager to expand beyond her father's gourmet potato farm in the small town of Delacrosse. She chooses a school in "the Athens of the Midwest," and imagines herself exiting the cave of her rural life into "bedazzlement and wonder." She revels in Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. In A Gate at the Stairs, with tongue firmly in cheek, Lorrie Moore paints a picture of the Midwest that will ring true for anyone who has spent time there. She shows us its sweetness and beauty, its humor and steadfast determination, its chilling indifference, and its cruel resistance to change. And she captures well the confusion and uncertainty that combine with a sharp wit in a smart girl who hasn't much life experience. Certainly I recognized myself in those youthful errors of judgment and flights of fancy. Those tests of the untried. Though few of us are likely as funny as Tassie, her barbed observations take us along on that journey all young people must take through their first jobs and first loves and first experiences of independence.
As she gives us a portrait of Tassie, Moore colors a larger canvas. The story is set just after the events of September 11, 2001. The country is more than usually fearful, more than a little uncomfortable with those who are different, and that fear is a shadow that sharpens the edge of what brightness Tassie finds in the mind-expanding lectures and unusual people of her college world.
There is the couple, Sarah and Edward, who hire her to nanny the biracial child they're adopting. Their story deepens and darkens her own, as Tassie discovers her maternal side and ponders their choices, their politics and eventually their troubling history. And there's the sweet but distant boy from Brazil whom she gives in to loving, but who turns out to be an enigmatic New Jersey Muslim, emblematic of the disturbing suspicions born of the 9/11 terrors. There are roommates, who become friends and exemplars and have no roots in each other's lives. And there's Tassie's family. She tries to put them as out of her mind as they are out of her sight, yet those home lessons keep her awake and aware in her personal reality, while the self-absorption of a twenty-year-old makes her blind to looming tragedy. Focused on her own story, unable or unwilling to act on other's needs, Tassie learns to know regret's pale and ancient face. Then discovers her own resilience in its visage.
Moore has taken on big subjects here. Known for her award-winning short stories, it's been more than a decade since she gave us a novel. It was worth the wait. She knows when to make me laugh and when to allow the tears. In Tassie, Lorrie Moore reveals the insight of her own experience as a college professor, and I find a girl that connects me to my young self, to my midwestern heritage, to the shifts and stumbles of human yearnings, and to my own nation's brave and dangerous character. To the things that halt us in our climb. Oblique, but unflinching, Moore's view of our time gives pause, yet ultimately yields compassion for young Americans entering a new millennium on the wings of crashing planes.
Often described as one of America's best short story writers, Lorrie Moore's day job is as a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Her short story collections, including Birds of America and Like Life, and her novels, such as Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, have consistently won high praise. She has been honored by the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Malamud Award among others. She writes with humor, compassion and keen observation about human relationships and the American scene.
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