on 6 February 2011
In the early stages of this book I was overwhelmed with the sheer verve of the writing. It is crammed with astute, darkly funny, and often poignant micro-observations, and so it is easy to see what all the hype was about. However, I came away questioning its categorization as a novel. To me, it felt like the sum of its parts never quite added up to a whole. I felt it increasingly hard to pick up and all too easy to skim through looking for signs of the few threads which held my interest. All in all, quite a disappointment, because I really *wanted* to love it.
`The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard'.
The image at the start of her first novel for years is pure Lorrie Moore. She sets the scene, the birds have been `suckered' into staying too long. As our student narrator, Tassie, tours the neighbourhood in search of babysitting work she sees the birds everywhere until after a week or so they have disappeared - and she imagines them not migrating late but in some `killing corn field' outside town. The mix of the ordinary and the macabre is very Moore.
Lorrie Moore is one of my favourite writers. She is witty, her dialogue is superb, she observes with scary clarity. She writes about small town America and her narrators tend to be a little quirky as well linguistically able. Tassie has a laughable set of classes in Troy, the Athens of the mid West; Intro to Sufism, Soundtracks to War Movies and Wine Tasting. She is selected to be the baby-sitter of a mixed race baby who hasn't even been adopted yet. Moore can examine whole aspects of this family as well as her own through this device but the relationship between Tassie and Mary Emma is credible, moving, tender and heartbreaking, not some sociological tract.
Lorrie Moore is a known master of the short story form. This is her first substantial novel (321 pages compared to the slim volume of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) and it is flawed - it's as if by setting it post 9/11 Moore thought it would gain more gravitas. But, it's also funny, sad, enthralling and glorious.
I like to have a variety when it comes to what I read; a smattering of classics, contemporary fiction, horror, sf, comedy and even some chick-lit, so I always try to go into any book with an open mind. Nick Hornby, of all people, gives this author a glowing review on the cover of this, so I was perhaps expecting something more than what was ultimately delivered.
I agree with other reviewers here that not much really happens to our heroine, Tassie, things happen around her and to people close to her and all the while she maintains seemingly detached. The events that occur in this novel are predominantly sad, maybe the author is trying to make a statement about western life in this day and age, as we move with Tassie from one setting to another where life just seems to beat people down and crush their spirits.
There are a number of major issues covered in the course of the story; not least bereavement, the war in Afghanistan, terrorism, adoption, materialism and the disillusionment of the young in society. By trying to create a telling novel of our times, I can't help feeling that something important has been lost and trying to perk things up by having a `quirky' central character who views these things from a skewed viewpoint doesn't quite get there for me.
The author does inject some humour into the details, but often I nearly missed these and found I had to re-read paragraphs to fully appreciate this element. This was one of my biggest problems with this book; I frequently found my mind wandering off and knew I wasn't really paying full attention to the narrative, as whole passages of text were almost deliberately poetic and abstract, with a large amount of morbid imagery.
It wasn't all bad, there are moments of happiness and these are when the story best comes together, particularly when featuring Mary-Emma or Reynaldo and I can see what the author was trying to do with this novel, but the blurb on the back describes Tassie as a 'memorable narrator' and events in the story 'dramatic and shocking' but I found neither of these to be the case. I have to admit, I was relieved when I got 40 pages from the end and realised with one last push I could finish the book, which isn't a good thing!
on 7 August 2012
I read this book very quickly and I'm sorry to say that I didn't enjoy it at all. I'm completely puzzled by the enthusiastic praise that has been lavished on it - were they reviewing the same book? If they were, are we engaged in a game of 'the emperors new clothes'?
The story is narrated by Tassie, who grew up on a farm and is now at university in a college town some sixty miles away. As the story begins, Tassie is looking for part time work as a babysitter. The couple that she eventually meets are a strange pair who are adopting a baby. Tassie combines college work with babysitting, providing an endless commentary on the things that are happening in her life and in the life of the child that has been adopted. Things happen but nothing seems to hang together very well.
As a reader, I'm not particularly fond of first person narratives - it's possible that they have to be done really well to work well, and to me, this one seemed like a dog's dinner. Tassie's observations are unnecessarily precocious with thoughts that frequently trundle off on improbable and boring tangents that seem to serve no purpose. Do we really need to know the decaying contents of her fridge every time she goes back to her flat?
The plot is also rather strange - made worse by the fact that it has to be hunted for amongst page after page of unnecessary words. As an exercise in how to use 101 adjectives when one will do, it is superlative achievement - as a story that you want to read and keep on reading, I can only describe it as a waste of time.
I was looking forward to reading this book because I had heard that Lorrie Moore was one of the best (the best?) American short story writers of the current crop. I read fifty pages or so, found it very tedious and put it aside. Then I heard an interview with Lorrie Moore on Radio 4, which rekindled my interest, so I went back and read fifty more. I don't think I'll be going back to it again. I still found it tedious; nothing happened to the main character, and I didn't care about her about her anyway, so what if it did? I think Moore was too concerned about writing a 'literary novel' and overlooked the need to create engaging characters and good storytelling. So why all the prizes and fuss? Maybe it's me. After all, I'm a lover of classical music who finds Mozart boring, so my tastes could be considered questionable. Or maybe it's Moore. Maybe she should have stuck to short stories, which she is no doubt better at. (I wish Isaac Bashevis Singer had done the same.) So there you have it; three pompous opinions in one unhelpful review.
I started reading this book long before it was nominated for (and won, I believe) various prizes, so wasn't swayed by its fame, as it were.
I have also since read that Lorrie Moore is feted by literary types as being the voice of America and wonderful.
Well, I for one won't be rushing out to buy another one of her books after this. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get into A Gate At The Stairs.
I didn't find Tassie at all engaging as a character and the story seemed to take far too long to get going.
Lorrie Moore writes very beautifully, but beautiful writing isn't often enough to make for a compelling read.
Maybe I'm not the target market - white, middle-class male - but that shouldn't exclude me from enjoying novels about different protagonists. However, in this case, I felt excluded.
Sorry, Lorrie, I'm sure you are a great writer, but on this evidence I clearly won't find out how good.
on 28 September 2015
So disappointed with this book to much unnecessary detail and not enough actual story! I've read free books that were more interesting! The price tag on this one is far to high! I carried on reading not because it was a page turner but in hope that something would jump out the pages to me! But it never did.
The story line would have been fantastic had it not been for the boring 20 pages in-between with far too much detail that u forget what the writer was even explaining in the first place!
When I first started to read this novel I was not overly impressed, it seemed to drag after only a few pages, then, one day, I sat down and read a good chunk of it in one sitting. I was immediately transported into the narrator's world - that of a girl moving from her rural home into college in the 'big city' - and fully immersed in the text. Lorrie Moore, for me, has a subtly natural way of writing, and what she writes about is life. There is no overall plot narrative here, the nearest it gets to a 'plot' is when the narrator becomes nanny to a couple adopting a mixed race baby, but chunks of life which flow seamlessly into one another. The narrative deals with death, terrorism, war, being young, getting old, adoption, race and racism (too name a few of the themes), and goes from hope to despair - with a hint of a smile - without missing a beat.
My advice to anyone wondering if to read this book or not is to give it a go, but sit down in a comfortable chair and allow yourself to be immersed in it, for me this is a novel for people who love reading.
on 1 August 2011
Being an admirer of Moore's short stories, I wanted and expected to love this book. Halfway through, I was reminded of Dorothy Parker's review, ""This is not a book to be cast aside lightly. It should be hurled with great force." It's a sorry case of words getting in the way of a good story. It's as though Moore is so in love with her own verbal brilliance, she sacrifices plot, pace and even character in the service of her interminable descriptions. The dialogue is unlikely, the narrative is self-conscious and isn't remotely humorous, and certain sections- the wednesday night meetings that are supposed to challenge racism but- no! - reveal the participants to be trapped in their own racist world view regardless of colour.. or the teeth-grindingly dull longeurs towards the end, when the narrator returns home to the farm- are almost unreadable. As a series of vignettes, or a flashy selection box of writing exercises, it's great. Moore can write, no question. What she can't do, on this very disappointing evidence, is write an engaging novel.
I would have preferred this book with a little more considered editing. It's not that there aren't some lovely set pieces and the writing is certainly skilful, but that it grinds along slowly and carefully, and by the end of the first third, you find that you don't particularly care anymore about the central characters. Having said that, there are a couple of quotable lines of extreme insight: the episode where our 'heroine' expresses her loathing for her mother when she complains of having given up her life to raise her daughter, and how this entitles her to act selfishly for the rest of her life, thank you very much... it's wonderful and witty. So, for some small pinpricks of joy, read this book and savour it - just don't expect a thrilling ride.