A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs was my first Moore. I had of course heard of her previous work, Anagrams, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, as well as her short story collections, but had somehow put her in a category marked 'whimsical, fey, American writer not unlike Joyce Carol Oates' and so she never managed to make my 'want to read' list. Yet last week, in Waterstones, having gone in to buy Don Paterson's Rain, which was stuck with the '3 for 2' sticker I thought I might as well pay for another book and get another one free. I chose the Moore as well as William Trevor's Love & Summer. (Trevor is much safer ground).

A Gate at the Stairs carries so many encomiums most writers could only hope for. 'Masterly', declares The Times, 'Exhilirating and heart-wrenching', says The Economist, 'Unbearably poignant and shockingly funny', claims the Sunday Telegraph and 'Full of perfect sentences', said Audrey Niffenegger'. The last quote is spot on. Moore's prose is shockingly perfect. She has laboured (or maybe it comes so easily) over each and every sentence. The story is set in 2001/02 and centres on Tassie Keltjin, 20, who leaves the small artisanal farm in Dellacrosse and her father, mother and Robert, her younger brother, to go to college in Troy. The course is telling - she studies wine tasting, sufism and 'Brit Lit', among others. Tassie comes across as a typical untypical student - no follower of fashion, but leaving food to rot in the fridge of the apartment she shares with the absent room-mate 'Murph', who has gone and shacked up with her boyfriend, but who still figures in the story. But it all changes in January when she goes to work for Sarah Brink, the owner of Le Petit Moulin, a bijous restaurant that also serves Tassie's fathers specialist potatoes (duck eggs). She becomes the child-minder in waiting to Brink and her flirtatious scientist husband, for they are about to adopt a child. They are finally charged with the care of Mary, a mixed race toddler, who Sarah gives the middle name of Emma. Mary-Emma becomes M.E. and then, Emmie. Yet Sarah Brink, despite being a new 45 year old mother, does not give up work at her restaurant, and so Tassie becomes a central figure in the toddler's life. She also starts dating Reynaldo, whom she believes to be Brazilian, and with him she enters into what becomes a one-sided love that leads to its own shocking revelation.

It is a multi-stranded story that Moore slowly and expertly reveals, building in its poignancy and revelations, covering life, and its absurdities, in the first years of the twenty-first century.

The prose is mesmerising, the story both subtle and powerful, tragic and funny and carries with it the weight of the writer's authenticity - an emotional groundedness that underpins the narrative. There are not enough female coming-of-age stories and this is one of the best I have read.

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