As much as I did like A Gate at the Stairs, I’m almost embarrassed to say I think I would have liked it more if I was more literary in my tastes. I think most of the things I didn’t love about it are part of what make it an exceptional book for others.
Looking at other reviews, the author is very well known and highly regarded, but I’d never heard of her before. She seems to be known for her short stories, which is a field that I have neglected.
As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer—his “Keltjin potatoes” are justifiably famous—has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir.
Between semesters, she takes a job as a part-time nanny.
The family she works for seems both mysterious and glamorous to her, and although Tassie had once found children boring, she comes to care for, and to protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own.
As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed.
I really enjoyed Tassie’s character, and thought the book was worth reading just to get to know her. She had a great sense of humor and a wonderful view of events around her. She was young and fresh, but with interesting insight.
I was also interested in the book’s insight into adoption, as Tassie falls into a job as a nanny for a couple trying to adopt. Sarah (the adoptive mom-to-be) is very earnest and seems to be well-meaning in her views on the birth mothers, adoption across racial lines, and so on– but it is Tassie that actually expresses interest in the birth mothers as people.
A Gate at the Stairs looks at racism from many different angles, from outright nastiness from strangers to well meaning but ultimately demeaning behavior from friends.
The biggest problem I had with A Gate at the Stairs is something that other people have noted as the book’s strength– the rich language it is written in. I read for character and plot, and prefer the words to be the delivery vehicle. Although the book had strong characters, and interesting plot, I found the words getting in the way at times.
I also felt that the different storylines and sections of the book were disjointed, didn’t completely tie together.
Back to the literary front, I think (based on the book description and a few references in the book) there were further points being made about September 11 and terrorism that simply went over my head. Whoosh.
I read this book for the September Twitter Book Club*. I was lucky enough to win a copy thanks to The Book Studio and Random House. Thank you, particularly since if I didn’t have a copy in hand, I probably would have skipped this month due to a busy reading schedule, and I’m very glad I didn’t.
I really enjoyed the TBC discussion this month. It was smaller than last month, and that made it easier to hear and be heard. There were many insights I didn’t catch on my own, and several times were people were able to state my thoughts better than I could. I think everyone participating enjoyed the book, and most appreciated the writing more than I did, although I’m not the only one that felt it slowed them down.
*Twitter Book Club is exactly what it sounds like– a group that discusses a book on Twitter each month. Anyone is welcome to join in. Full details are at the Twitter Book Club website. Please feel free to join in, even if you’re new to Twitter or to book club discussions.