Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

It has been a long time since I disliked a book this much. There was a moment on Sunday when the urge to throw it across the room and be done with it forever was so strong I had to clench my hands around the spine to keep myself from doing it. This was made more imperative by the fact that I was standing outside in a bus terminal at the time, and this was a library book.

There will be spoilers. I'm not marking them, because I want people to read them and then avoid this book like the plague.

Why do I loathe it? Let me count the ways. First of all, this book reads like it was written by someone who has only heard about humans third or fourth hand, by repute. The characters are largely cardboard. The main character, Tassie Keltjin, who is slightly better than cardboard, is an awful human being, passive-aggressive, judgmental, and a general brat. If she learned something along the way, that might have been something. I'm not sure she did. Oh, and she played the bass. This seemed to have no actual relevance to the character or the story, as though the author thought that having her play the bass guitar would impart depth without doing anything to make it meaningful. Or even interesting.

Other characters were mostly cardboard, and I couldn't give a flying crap about any of them.

Two, the author did no research. Some examples:

Freelance eye cancer researcher? Affiliated with neither a university nor a medical research company?
Mosquitoes don't burrow through your clothes and bite you, they land on top and bite through. Standardized patient programs don't recruit by testing you to see if you can make up fake symptoms with no prompting or training. What the hell use would that be?
Coffins are not that fucking roomy.

There were more, dear god, there were more. Those are just the ones that started to bother me from the beginning. But even that might have been okay. It wouldn't have made this a good book, but lack of research isn't enough to make a book this bad.

Then the melodrama started. And it was ridiculous. With no repercussions, most of the time. And often took real things that could be heartbreaking, and made them so over the top that they just made me angrier and angrier.

Of course the sensitive Portuguese student Tassie has been dating turns out to be a radical Muslim militant masquerading as Portuguese, who leaves for London while informing her he's not part of a cell. This is never paid off. Nothing happens with it. NOTHING. Tassie mopes because her heart has been broken, plays the bass, and in no way does this move the story forward or affect it.

Tassie becomes a part-time nanny for an adopted child. The parents eventually lose custody of the child - this happens in real life, and it could be presented in a way that meant something, that hit some emotional core. Oh no. Instead, we're treated to a story where we learn the adoptive parents are losing their adopted child because they've been living under false names all this time because one time, they were parents, and during a stressful drive, the father stopped by the side of the interstate and told their three year old to get out. And he did, somehow unbuckling himself from his carseat - a neat trick if you're three. AND THEN THE FATHER STARTED THE CAR AGAIN AND DROVE OFF sort of "by accident" and when they were trying to get back to him, the child ran into the highway and was killed and they were charged with negligence but got off but were desperate to adopt, so they changed their names and moved and....

I'm not making this up.

Oh, and the poisonous tapenade the adoptive mother makes, has Tassie take home and store, which her roommate accidentally eats and almost dies? There's no payoff for that either. No repercussions. And no clue what it was going to be used for - the adoptive mother never asks for it back.

And then there's the part where Tassie climbs into the coffin of her brother who was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan and snuggles with the bits. And then pulls the coffin lid down over her. I'm not even going to comment on this.

But it was this line, this one right here, that made me want to throw this smug, condescending little book into a puddle of oil.

"Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society, full of sorrow and truth but without moral function."

She goes on to say that the "triumph of the poor" was that they could laugh at their tragedies.

I couldn't even explain how angry this made me. The main character is so awful through the entire book about those she considers stupid (her entire home town, which she says several times should be blown up - people would be better off.) But this, the idea that a) tragedy as sadness really only affects the rich and b) that finding places to laugh in tragedy mean that you aren't affected - well, both of them just about made me explode.

Okay, now I've purged all that out of my system, let's hope I can go forward, and never think of this book again. I don't know what the author was trying to do with this. It's not funny. It's not good quirky. It's just terrible.


  1. Agreed 100%! Hated this book and loved your review.

    1. Thanks! Good to hear I wasn't alone.

  2. Thank you for this review as I have struggle to page 133 by skim reading most of it and now I know what happened I don't have to waste anymore time on it. The older I get the more aware I am of spending time on books that aren't that good when there is so much more to read.

  3. I hated this book from the first few pages. I kept pushing myself to keep reading because it was supposed to be some award winning book. The whole time.. I have been irritated beyond belief at some of the absurdity of the characters and storyline. After reading your review.. I am finally stopping and throwing it out. Thank you for letting me know that I'm not the only one who felt this way.

  4. Happy to have found your blog!!
    I heard this book won some sort of award....? I hated it and began to wonder what was (A) wrong with me, or (B) wrong with Good Reads.
    There is so much "descriptive text" that seems forced, unnecessary, trying to sound clever, etc. It was so irritating, I would forget what was was being described and why. Despite this and all the things you wrote,
    I did manage to finish the book, and I'm still wondering....Why? What was the point???

    1. You hit the nail on the head. I don't get why people like this book. It drove me so crazy.

  5. This book annoyed me so much I went online to look for reviews and see what they said. Surprisingly, the NYT gushed about it. What bugged me right from the start were simply the glitches. She arrives at Sarah's house and sees that wood from a lightning-struck oak had been cut and piled by the house. HOW, pray tell, does one look at a woodpile and a tree trunk and immediately know that the wood came from that particular tree? Or, if just the trunk is left, how would one know it had been hit by lightning? When she takes the cab as directed by Sarah, she first says it is the first time she's ever ridden in a cab. . . then a few sentences later remarks how all the cabs in town are driven by law school grads who never took the bar exam. How does she know?

    I read before I go to sleep, and it was the only new book (new from a thrift store where I find new authors. Often this has worked out very well, but every so often. . .). I had one other new book downstairs, "Blessings". The next evening I sat at the dining table after work and started Blessings, and didn't move until I finished it 5 hours later.

  6. Thank you for this great review. I thought I was alone in my dislike after reading so many reviews that claimed this book was pure genius. For me, the sarcastic, world-weary attitude sunk the book (and other books by this author). It could never fit the innocent farm girl character so it sounds utterly like the author's voice. It feels overly ironic, a wall that the reader can't scale. I felt like I was on a long train ride with a self centered companion, just rattling on about how amusing the antics of humans are. Even the author photo in my library copy has a knowing smugness. I quit about 1/3 through. Looking forward to reading more of your reviews. Bella

    1. Thanks, Bella. I always find it reassuring to hear other people disliked this one as much as I did.