Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Gate at the Stairs -- Lorrie Moore

I have never been a gushy, emotional person. Cry in public? Never. Coo at little furry animals? I don't think so. So imagine my surprise when, after becoming a mom, I found myself getting all misty-eyed at the drop of a hat. And even more surprised when I realized that I can no longer stand certain kinds of stories: the kind that involve children suffering in some way. For example, I read a magazine story about two children (now adults) who survived a horrific, abusive upbringing and I felt like throwing up (and I almost woke L up from a nap to hug her and tell her I loved her -- I made myself stop, though, because sleep is very elusive in our house!).



Which is why I had to stop reading A Gate at the Stairs.


Do not get me wrong -- this is a great book. Up until the point when I quit cold turkey, I was totally loving every minute of it: the witty, self-deprecating narrator (Tassie, a young college student who works as a nanny when she's not in class or playing her bass), the quirky couple she works for, their beautiful biracial adopted daughter, the setting in "Troy," a college town meant to seem like Madison. Lorrie Moore has a real gift for prose; listening to it on audiobook was helping me to particularly savor her word play, as in this excerpt:

Back in Dellacrosse the dining was divided into "Casual" which meant you ate it standing up or took it away, or the high-end, which was called "Sit-down Dining." At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were gem├╝ltlichkeit and paneled, decorated with framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read "Guten Morgen." Sauces were called "gravy." And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak "cooked to your likeness." On Fridays there were fries or boils where they served fish called "lawyers" — burbot or eel pout — called "lawyers" because their hearts were in their butts. (They were fished from the local lake where all the picnic spots had trash cans that read "NO FISH GUTS.") On Sundays there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad, and something called "Grandma Jello," but "prime rib with au jus" a precise knowledge of French — or English or even food coloring — not being the restaurant's strong point. A la carte meant soup or salad; dinner meant soup and salad. The roquefurt on the salad was called by the waitstaff "Rockford dressing." The house wine — red, white or pink — all bore its requisite bouquet of rose, soap, and graphite, a whiff of hay, a hint of hooterville, though the menu remained mute about all this, sticking to straightforward declarations of hue. Light ale and dunkel were served. For dessert there was usually a gl├╝ckschmerz pie, with the fluffy look and heft of a small snow bank. After any meal, sleepiness ensued.

But I suddenly got this funny feeling. Nothing much was happening in the story -- nannying was fairly predictable, the quirky couple was still being quirky, Tassie was taking classes we didn't hear much about -- and I felt this wave of fear that this was going to be a book that didn't end well. So I did what my students have probably done countless times before when they didn't want to read to the end of an assignment: I wikipediaed it.

I won't tell you the details of the ending, since I don't feel right doing so when I didn't really read them myself. But suffice it to say that, if you don't like books that make you cry, you should not read this one. Ever.

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