Lorrie Moore’s first novel in many years is worth the wait. A Gate at the Stairs, like much of the author’s writing, can make you laugh out loud in places, bring you to tears in others, and sometimes makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Tassie Keltjin, a half-Jewish Midwestern farm girl turned college student, is studying random humanities courses in the made-up Midwestern town of Troy when she is jolted from a childlike passivity into a sad adulthood by a series of unexpected shocks.
Though a typically self-absorbed college student, Tassie is also a sharp observer of others. As she is looking for a babysitting job:
One forty-ish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions. “What would you do if our little baby started crying and wouldn’t stop? Are you available evenings? What do you think of as a useful educational activity for a small child?” I had no idea. I had never seen so many pregnant women in such a short period of time—five in all. It alarmed me. They did not look radiant. They looked reddened with high blood pressure and frightened.
Tassie — the narrator of the story — is a musician, a songwriter, and a lover of language. Some reviewers complain that too many jokes and too much wordplay detract from the seriousness of A Gate at the Stairs. But sometimes you have to laugh or else you’re just going to cry all the time.