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Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate at the Stairs”

PUBLISHED: August 27, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs

We are used to waiting with bated breath for new works by Pynchon, Roth, and Rushdie, but rarely have I witnessed such a countdown for a new novel from a female writer as I have with Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, which will be released on September 1. An old writing teacher has begun a countdown until the release date on his Facebook status. My friends and I will race to finish Sunday’s New York Times Book Review to see what Jonathan Lethem has to say in his review, and then we’ll call each other to say what we thought about what Lethem thought about it. Recently, I surprised myself by purchasing the $6 fall issue of Elle magazine in an airport just because there was a two-page interview with Moore, tucked in just before Jennifer Aniston’s eight-page cover story. How exciting, I thought. Finally, Lorrie’s in a fashion magazine!

A Gate at the Stairs follows two women who are strangers in their own lives: one is Tassie, a naïve and mostly apathetic Midwestern college student who takes a job as a nanny, and the other is a successful chef in a crumbling marriage, who adopts a baby and hires Tassie to help with childcare. Moore’s publicity machine is working hard on this novel. Interviews with her have popped up all over the place lately, even in Reader’s Digest, a publication that one of Moore’s educated and wickedly bitter characters would surely make fun of. Perhaps the book’s publisher, Random House, feared the public would forget Moore, whose last work, the popular story collection, Birds of America, appeared over a decade ago ago, in 1998. Before that, she ruled the literary terrain with her second story collection, Like Life, in 1990 and the widely praised novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? in 1994. She was a voice of the decade—a young, wry woman with a loose pen and exacting, heartbreaking wit.

Maybe her inclusion in the Jennifer Aniston issue of Elle isn’t so unlikely, because Lorrie Moore might be the Jennifer Aniston of contemporary literature. Moore is, like Aniston, a painstakingly funny everywoman. Like Aniston, she has become an emblem for the down-on-her-luck woman. (After struggling with her young son’s life-threatening disease, chronicled in the story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” Moore went through a bitter, long divorce.) And, if Moore’s ten-year gap between works and her infamous reticence in interviews is any indication, she is, like Aniston, a fiercely private woman. Both Moore and Aniston reached an apex in the nineties. If Aniston had the character of Rachel, Moore had Birds of America, which remains a bible of sorts for so many young women of my generation.

I was seventeen when I first discovered Birds of America, when my first workshop teacher told me to read it. Moore’s characters were a breath of cold, infusing Midwestern air. They were women stuck in the flat states, too smart to be loved, too sad to be kind, too jilted to be joyful. They were women I recognized, women I wanted to write about. When Moore gave a reading as part of 2001’s New Yorker Festival, I eagerly boarded the Metro-North to attend alone. Afterwards, I nervously waited in a line, handed her my copy to sign and sputtered, “I—I—you just…” and she stopped me, thankfully, by putting her hand up. “I know,” she said. “It’s okay.” That signed copy is the only book that I refuse to lend out.

That sort of kindly-yet-restrained authority is just the reason many of us are re-reading Birds of America this week in preparation for A Gate at the Stairs. Moore represents the voices of smart, sad, and slightly neurotic women on a national bookshelf currently cluttered with tissue-thin chick lit, Roth anti-heroes, and angsty male Brooklyn writers. We anticipate her success because we want her to succeed. I don’t know what Jennifer Aniston’s next project is, but I’ll admit that I secretly think it might be nice if the woman famously tossed aside by Brad Pitt fell in love. In the same vein, Moore’s triumphs are our own, for the community of dedicated fans. If Moore’s misunderstood female characters can succeed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, then there is hope for us yet.

Whatever the response to A Gate at the Stairs, I’ll still have a place for her. A writing teacher of mine recently dismissed one of my stories by saying “it’s Lorrie Moore.” Little did that teacher know that, in my mind, there is no finer compliment.


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