2009 Orange Prize

A Gate at the Stairs – Lorrie Moore

 Short listed for the 2010 Orange Prize

A Gate at the Stairs is set in the American Midwest and follows twenty-year-old Tassie as she begins work as a child minder. She is hired by a glamorous couple who are about to adopt a mixed race child. The couple seem more interested in running their restaurant business than becoming a proper family and so Tassie has the complex task of keeping the peace in an increasingly chaotic home.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of the language in this book. Everything was described in detail, so I built up a vivid picture of their surroundings.

I woke up in a blaze of white sun. I had neglected to pull the shades and it had snowed in the night; the morning rays reflected off the snow on the sills and on the low adjacent roof, setting the room on fire with daylight.

For the first 50 pages I was happy with this scene setting, but I gradually began to crave a plot. Very little seemed to happen in the book and, on the odd occasion it did, the event seemed to drag on for far too long. I ploughed on through the beautiful text, but I’m afraid that the entire plot could be summarised in about 6 words (don’t worry I won’t spoil it for you!).

The main theme of the book is what it is to be a family. Discussions on adoption, working parents and mixed race relationships are all buried somewhere in the text, but you have to read a lot of waffle to find them.

This book reminded me of Digging to America by Anne Tyler (which I didn’t really like) but I think that A Gate at the Stairs is the better of the two books – just!

Overall I’m afraid that the lack of a real plot meant this book failed to entertain me.

Opinions on this book are very mixed:

Lorrie Moore’s writing is beautiful: lyrical but without ever detracting from the events of the story. Other Stories

…the different storylines and sections of the book were disjointed… I’m Booking It

I had the feeling that I was experiencing a very good writer not at her best. Kevin From Canada

40 replies on “A Gate at the Stairs – Lorrie Moore”

Oh dear, I’ve just found your magnificent site and I’m going to have to post my first comment in partial disagreement. Yesterday I actually did a very rare thing, I gave up on a book, this book. I agree completely about the lack of plot, but I could live with that. My real problem was that for me this exemplified GBS’s view that England and America are two countries divided by a common language. I felt that this was so deeply rooted in its location and the dialect of the society that I was having to fight my way through making meaning. Perhaps because of the lack of plot the effort required just didn’t seem worth the gain.

Study Window, Thanks for commenting on my blog for the first time!

I have to admit that I would probably have given up on this book if it hadn’t been on the Orange list. I agree with you about the language bit. Just found this quote:

“Correct subject-verb agreement is best when children are learning language, so be careful what you sing. It’s an issue when raising kids of color. A simple grammatical matter can hold them back in life. Down the road.”

It is enough to make me throw the book across the room in disgust!

You are right I was being quite generous when writing my review!!

Jeny, Yes – there are a few passages like that. I mentally threw it a few times, but some fantastic writing always came along and to make me forget about things like that!

I enjoyed Digging to America so perhaps I’ll like this more than you did.

Am I correct in thinking that you have read all of the Orange shortlist now (excluding Wolf Hall in its entirety)?! I’m impressed. I have managed to read … one; it was the longest and may very well win, but still only one.

Do you have a prediction as to who will win?

Claire, I’ve still got to finish The Lacuna. I’ve only read about 50 pages so far (out of nearly 700!) I hope to finish it over the weekend and that will complete my short list reading. So far I can’t imagine anything other than Wolf Hall winning. The Lacuna is the only possible rival I can see, but it is hard to say because I haven’t finished it yet. But those Orange judges are picking strange choices this year, so who knows!!

I started this, and was quite enjoying it but then put it down, but for no other reason than I had to read some others that were due back at the library and I couldn’t bring myself to take them back unread.
I since have had no desire to pick it back up though, so I’m not sure what that says about it.

Jo, I think that says a lot! This book doesn’t really have anything to drive it forward so it is easy to put it down and forget about it forever. Nothing that exciting happens in he end so I wouldn’t recommend rushing to get back to it!

I was entranced for the first fifty pages or so as well, and I enjoyed the language throughout. At times it drifted towards satire, but at times it didn’t seem to be satirical. The language was beautiful, but there were so few likable people in the book, it was difficult to care. I couldn’t tell if my identification with Tassie was Moore’s intention, and the other characters were patronizing the reader or her character. I’m glad I read it, and my like and dislike of it ebbed and flowed (I honestly think parts of it could work as different short stories), but I literally threw the book when I finished it. Yes, it was a library copy, and it was already rather beat up, which amused me as it’s been out less than a year. I really feel as though this novel is what makes people leery of literary fiction: good writing and frustration without a pay off.

nomadreader, I agree that several sections would work well as short stories. It did seem as though she just tried to connect several stories together to make a novel and that didn’t really work. I loved bits, but was very frustrated by others. I just wanted to slap that couple most of the time!

If you want to see a book that will really scare people from literary fiction then I recommend Yann Martell’s new book: Beatrice and Virgil. I’m currently having great fun writing a very negative review for it 😉

I am generally open to books that have no plot if they are well-written. But right now, I’m listening to an audio called “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” and am getting testy. Writing is good, miserable unlikable characters, and I have no idea where it is going. And I’m on disc 5 of 6. It better hurry up and get to the point, because I’m ready to throw it out the window.

Way to go on slaying the Orange List books! I really can’t fathom how you get through so many huge books with two little ones running around. You must be a speed-reader!

Sandy, I didn’t love “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” either! I’m afraid it doesn’t really go anywhere, but at least you only have one disc left!

I don’t think I’m really a speed reader, but I do read a lot. I spend most evenings reading. They spend quite a lot of time at nursery now, so that helps too!

I’ve essentially heard that this book isn’t all that awesome, so I don’t think it’s one I’ll be reading anytime soon. I was actually pretty disappointed to find that this made the Orange Prize shortlist because of how mediocre most readers have found it, so I guess I’m hoping it doesn’t win (despite not having read it myself!)!

Steph, I’m hoping it doesn’t win too.

I have no idea why so many average books made the short list this year – it makes no sense to me 🙁

vivienne, There are a lot of beautiful paragraphs – it is a real shame that they don’t connect together to make a wonderful novel 🙁

I gave up on page 67. I had seen it listed on the NY Times Notable book list for 2009, and I knew she had written several books, so I wanted to read it, especially once it was on the Orange list as well. It was just too blah. It seemed liked I should have liked it, but too boring. I had no distaste for it, just too many mysteries on the TBR pile that would *insist* I turn the next page, when this one didn’t seem to care if I kept going. Back to the library.

raidergirl3, I think you probably made a good choice – I could have been reading a good book instead of wasting my time on this one. I don’t understand why it ended up on lists like the NY Times Notable book one and the Orange – I wish someone would tell me what I’m missing!

Hi Jackie,

Thanks for the link off this review — it has been some months since I read this novel. There is one thing that has not changed, which you capture in your review: there is the potential for a very good novel in this book and Moore simply does not find it. It is not a bad read, it just is not a very good one. Many good short stories, no good novel.

And you comment about Beatrice & Virgil will bring me back. I was so offended by the book (Martel has no right to exploit the Holocaust) that I refuse to post a review on it — but am quite willing to comment on those posted by others. So I will stoke up my fire and await your post.

KevinfromCanada, Moore is clearly a talented short story writer, but she does need a bit of work to create a convincing novel. I hope she learns how to do it one day as I’m sure she has a fantastic book in there somewhere!

Beatrice & Virgil is a shockingly bad book in so many ways. I’m booked to see Yann Martell talk about it on Tuesday, so look forward to seeing what he has to say – I will be making notes for the blog post 😉

It is good to hear I’m not alone in my passionate dislike for it – I look forward to your return!

not read any moore have her short storie sat on tbr ,feel thats her forte ,i did enjoy the tyler i read earlier in year know janette is a big fan of hers ,all the best stu

You seem to share the sentiments as quite a few other bloggers who have read this book. I had it checked out from my library at one point and had to return it without reading it. After all of the “so so” reviews I am content to let it sit on my tbr list a little longer.

Kathleen, It really depends what you like in a book. I think fans of short stories will enjoy this one but if you are after a proper plot then it is best left on the shelf

I just finished this book yesterday, and didn’t love it, but quite liked it. The beautiful language did the trick for me, and some of the scenery setting was amazing. I could almost connect to Tassie at a couple of levels.

The last seventy odd pages felt like it was dragging on a bit, and the ending didn’t really blow me away, unfortunately. It wasn’t the ending I craved.

anothercookiecrumbles, It sounds as though we had a similar experience with this book. I connected with Tassie occasionally, but there were a lot of times she lost me. I look forward to reading your review.

diane, I imagine this book would really drag on audio. Those great descriptions don’t really work on audio, so you don’t have any of the plus points 🙁

I’m not so sure about this one. (A lot of this recently with your reviews I think!) While it sounds lovely and beautiful, not what I am looking for at the moment (what with the no plot thing!).

I’ll watch out for the lack of plot. I just got this from the library as UAB audio so maybe it’ll be good b/c the writing and descriptions are.

I felt the exact same way you did reading this book. Beautiful in it’s descriptiveness, awful in it’s plot. The whole time I read it I thought, this was listed for a prize?

Also, as the mother of biracial children, I found the storyline of the parents and the meetings annoying. Their conversations were offensive and I remember thinking that I hope my children never meet such people in their lives. i couldn’t tell from the writing if this is what the author thinks mixed race families are about, or if she actually knew people who had such discussions freely. Either way, I found their conversations sad.

Shannon, It is great to hear that a parent of mixed race children found the conversations offensive. I thought they were terrible, but didn’t know if I was just niave and didn’t really know what goes on around the world. Thanks for letting me know that some mixed race families don’t really feel like that.

I loved A Gate at the Stairs and thought the plot worked well, although it’s a contemplative story, not an action-packed adventure. (I say why I loved it in my review.) I can see that a lot of the way the language works is regional, though. I thought the nuances of conversation about the mixed-race child were focused on the odd reactions of people outside the prospective adoptive family.

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