In a post-9/11 America, Tassie is a college student in the Midwest who becomes the nanny of a mixed-race toddler that has just been adopted by an affluent white family.
Lorrie Moore's coming-of-age novel is certainly very ambitious. There're a lot of things she is trying to capture, from post-9/11 anxiety to the traps of racism, via college life. The problem is that she's not equally good with every topic, and as a result, it seems that she's trying to do too much. Fortunately, the good things can be really good.
In A Gate at the Stairs, racism is certainly her forte. Some of the best scenes in the novel consist of a group of people discussing their ideas about the issue of racism and how to solve it in their neighborhoods. Through these conversations, Moore shows the traps even the well-meaning fall into, almost despite themselves.
When it comes to college life, Tassie's isolation may seem a little unusual, but her relationship with her quirky best friend is very convincing. Tassie's voice, filled with humor and arrogance, is also well-crafted and is eventually what makes the novel compelling.
However, there were clumsy bits that eventually brought the novel down. The anxieties of a post-9/11 America were mainly represented by one character in particular, whose relationship with the narrator seemed rushed and whose fate seemed cliche. I wish she'd addressed the subject with more subtlety, one worthy of the genre she chose. Her lack of subtlety showed here and there. For example, there is a scene when the mixed-race toddler asks about her (adopted) father's blue eyes. I'm not saying toddlers never ask about such things, but the scene felt so heavy-handed and cliche, that I was disappointed. It might have worked with a different writer (I heard Toni Morrison wrote a whole book about it); it did not feel right with Moore.