You can't say you don't see the trouble coming, not in a novel where the first line is "The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard." The narrator is Tassie Keltjin, a Midwestern college student looking for baby-sitting work in December 2001. Her voice, as rendered by the ever adroit Lorrie Moore in A Gate at the Stairs, is a wonky mixture of farm-girl practicality, undergraduate sass, and a reflexive honesty that will prove her best armor against the posturing, secrecy, and downright lying that ultimately overturn her easygoing view of the world. Lyrical and lighthearted, Tassie herself is something of a songbird, but by the end of the novel, her mental temperature will have dipped to what Emily Dickinson called "zero at the bone."
Tassie lands a job with Sarah Brink, a local restaurant owner and chef who plans to adopt. Sarah is so rigorous about her responsibilities as a prospective mother that she drags Tassie along when interviewing birth mothers. An intimidating woman, she is always one or two steps ahead of everyone else in the room—and just as often too smart for her own good. Or, as the perceptive Tassie puts it, "I always had the sense with her that she didn't suffer fools gladly but that life was taking great pains to show her how." Rereading the novel, such lines leap out at you, but Moore deals the cards she's holding so quietly that you—like Tassie—may easily miss their import the first time through the deck. In this story, actions—especially thoughtless ones—have consequences, such that life can unravel in a heartbeat. At first, the damage falls around Tassie, but ultimately it finds her, too. And then lands on her again and again, mounting up in such abundance that you want to ask, what next? A case of boils? A plague of frogs? Isn't one Book of Job enough?
Moore must not think so. The misfortune that piles up in A Gate at the Stairs starts as a trickle, but ends as an avalanche. This is, without doubt, a powerful, compassionate novel, both funny and tragic, and always beautifully told. It is also the literary equivalent of Murphy's Law, and the amount of suffering inflicted on its characters raises the question of how much is too much. Is there a point beyond which a fiction writer is merely punishing his or her readers? We pay lip service to the idea that we learn from novels and stories, that they have life lessons to teach us. Some do, but most of the time, the bargain we strike with fiction is much humbler: is the payoff worth the pain? Is what we take from a story or novel commensurate with or, if we're lucky, greater than what it takes out of us? 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.