Tassie Keltjin, the protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, will never forget the lessons she learns during her first year at college, because she learns them all through heartbreak. The romantic heartbreak she suffers teaches her how little she can trust herself. Her breakup with the adorable toddler she babysits – her adoptive parents can’t keep her – breaks her heart, and rends the poor reader’s to shreds. And finally she and her family must deal with the loss of her dear, aimless brother, a casualty in Afghanistan.
Ms. Moore tells these hardships with a leavening of humor, most of it clever wordplay, but the puns and jokes harden and become brittle under the story’s pressures. She ends up telling them with a helpless wail, the better to crack wise than succumb to tears. I wonder.
I don’t measure my reactions to books on the litmus of emotions, however. This book has plenty to commend it, principally the development of Tassie. She starts out as an innocent, her heart uncalloused by any real strife. She takes blows and batterings – really too many for any one person in a year – and comes through at the end definitely the sadder but wiser woman. I honor Ms. Moore for the clarity with which she tells the story,
Tassie is a fine construct, a wise-cracking, wide-reading, bass player, who learns quickly in a world which will teach things to you in spite of yourself. As full of well-realized characters as this book is, she’s the star here, and well worth your time.