‘A Gate at the Stairs’ is good, but is it great?

Posted in book reviews, books, Newsweek, NYT by Diane on August 29, 2009

gateatstairsOh how I love it when the New York Times serves up decidedly different takes on the same book in its daily and weekly pages. Michiko Kakutani delivered a tough but largely positive review of Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate at the Stairs” in Friday’s paper, whereas Jonathan Lethem out and out raves about it in the paper’s Sunday book review section, suggesting that doubters ought to have their head examined.

So which is it? I have an even more mixed take on the book. There was much to love in “A Gate at the Stairs” — narrator Tassie Keltjin is affecting, as is her quirky family — but its weaknesses bugged me long after I finished reading. The plot, tied to fallout from 9/11, begs credulity. And I generally find it annoying when authors withhold key plot information under the guise of character obliviousness or diffidence, as was the case here. Killer closing lines couldn’t quite make up for those deficiencies.

Kakutani notes Moore’s clumsy job orchestrating certain revelations and an unfortunate tendency toward wordplay, but forgives those weaknesses, judging “A Gate at the Stairs” the author’s best book yet.

“If Ms. Moore, who started out as a short-story writer, demonstrates some difficulty here in steering the big plot machinery of a novel, she is able to compensate for this by thoroughly immersing the reader in her characters’ daily existences,” Kakutani writes.

Lethem will have none of that criticism, praising the author’s patience and “deft sleight of hand” alluding to grander themes. He does, however, acknowledge that he aware of one — only one — reader who doesn’t care for Moore, objecting to her punny prose. Lethem closes his review vowing to press this book on that doubter.

But that won’t quite do it, I’m afraid. Other reviewers also have issues with “A Gate at the Stairs.” DoubleX founding editor Hanna Rosen dings the narration as sounding too middle-aged in an otherwise positive review. Newsweek’s Malcolm Jones goes even further: He praises the beauty of Moore’s prose but questions the amount of suffering heaped on characters. “Is there a point beyond which a fiction writer is merely punishing his or her readers?,” he asks. “Moore delivers a lot in this hard-knocks coming-of-age novel. But making the acquaintance of the unforgettable Tassie is such an exhausting, punishing experience that you finish the book wondering if it was worth the trouble.”

I wouldn’t go that far. “A Gate at the Stairs” is well worth reading. Just not the second coming.

Read the reviews: Kakutani (NYT), Lethem (NYT), Jones (Newsweek), Rosen (DoubleX)


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  1. […] isn’t to say Zacharek doesn’t like parts of “A Gate at the Stairs.” Like me, she has a mixed view, although her criticism takes a different […]

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