Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs

Loving Lorrie Moore as a short story writer, you can't imagine my delight at seeing a full length novel written by this inimitable writer. Does she succeed in the longer format? Yes, despite one or two reservations, I think she does...

What I love about Lorrie Moore are her delicious descriptions-so fresh and quirky, yet so real and grounding. The story is focused around Tassie, a young woman who grew up on a farm in Dellacrosse and who is attending college in Troy at the time the story takes place. She finds a part-time job as a childminder for a couple, Sarah and Edward, who adopt a colored child Emmie, with whom Tassie forms a deep bond. Tassie, despite her youth, has a deep wisdom and a way of understanding the world far beyond her years. She clings to awkward teenage habits and expressions, 'awesome', 'sounds good', but is so self-aware that she sees these exactly for what they are. Her observations of Sarah, the eccentric, high-maintenance foster mother, and her strained relationship with husband Edward, are often hilarious, but cut right to the truth: by the end, we see what a shambles their marriage is, and the lies and secrets upon which it totters, trying to avoid its inevitable downfall.
Another important element of the book describes Tassie's immediate family: her quirky farmer father, her nonchalant Jewish mother, and her self-doubting, coming-of-age brother, who ends up signing up for the army and shortly after, being killed.

I couldn't help thinking of these two separate elements, her job as a childminder, and her brother's death, as two separate short stories, independent of one another, but for Tassie being the link. This pastiche aspect to the novel, added to the quirkiness of the narrator's voice, but for me, took from the integrity of the novel. Something else that bothered me about the novel was the Sarah's over-the-top revelation about her and Edward's past, which was so absurd and unexpected that I couldn't take that part of the novel seriously anymore.

This said, there were some great juxtapositions, great images, and all presented in straight-forward language, but with vast emotional depth. One such moment was Tassie's 21st birthday at the end of the novel. Tassie's dad uses the cliched expression of how time flies, Tassie muses on this, and her mother jumps in with a marked reference to her dead son:

" 'To our sweet and lovely Tassie' said my dad. 'Twenty-one! Time flies so fast, I have to lie down just thinking about it'.
I'd read once of a French geologist who had confined himself in a dark cave for sixty-one days, though when he emerged, he thought it had only been forty-five.Time flew! No matter what.
'At least we got you out of childhood', added my mother "

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