Lorrie Moore fans are a patient bunch. It’s been more than 10 years since her most recent short story collection, and nearly 15 since her last full-length work of fiction, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Fortunately, her latest offering proves well worth the wait.

A Gate at the Stairs, the author’s third novel, is solidly and delightfully Lorrie Moore territory; there’s the isolated, intelligent female narrator who both hides and survives through her humor and nonchalance; the Midwestern landscape that stretches with ennui and possibility; the pithy wordplay that is as haunting as it is lighthearted (“I had been the minibar—and not the minbar—in this temporary room of lodging,” the main character says, after her boyfriend leaves her for the callings of Islam). But mostly there is the “spot-on-ness” that readers have so come to identify with Moore’s work.

Set soon after the events of September 11th, A Gate at the Stairs follows Tassie Keltjin, the 20-year-old daughter of a potato farmer and an undergraduate at a large Wisconsin college who accepts a babysitting job for an upper-class couple. The catch: there is no baby. Or not yet, at least. Rather, the pair is trying to adopt and sees no problem with inviting Tassie to take part in the process. If this sounds odd, that’s because it is—and it only gets more odd once they get their child and Tassie’s nanny duties become increasingly blurred and all-consuming. After all, what is she to them? An intellectual equal and friend? An inferior member of the “help”? Or a sort of middle ground between themselves and the biracial baby for whom they are now responsible?

The plot takes several bizarre twists, and readers may be tempted to skim the passages where other white parents of African-American children talk about social inequity. But ultimately, we avoid the overly didactic as Moore explores everything from race to class to the war in Iraq in a fairly organic fashion—that is, behind the guise of a refreshingly agenda-less narrator and with a voice so pitch-perfect as to appear effortless.

 

Jillian Quint is an Assistant Editor at the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc

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