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A Gate at the Stairs (Vintage Contemporaries)

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A Gate at the Stairs (Vintage Contemporaries) Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of A Gate at the Stairs, the powerful, poignant, and laugh-out-loud story of a young woman's coming of age in the Midwest in the unsettling aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and America's buildup to war.

1. In addition to her sense of humor and intelligence, what are Tassie's strengths as a narrator? How does what she describes as “an unseemly collection of jostling former selves” (p. 63) affect the narrative and contribute to the appeal of her tale?

2. In the farming community where Tassie grew up, her father “seemed a vaguely contemptuous character. . . . His idiosyncrasies appeared to others to go beyond issues of social authenticity and got into questions of God and man and existence” (p. 19). Does the family, either intentionally or inadvertently, perpetuate their standing as outsiders? How does Moore use what ordinarily might be seen as clichés and stereotypes to create believable and sympathetic portraits of both the locals and the Keltjin family?

3. How does the initial meeting between Tassie and Sarah (pp. 10-24) create a real, if hesitant, connection between them? What aspects of their personalities come out in their conversation? To what extent are their impressions of each other influenced by their personal needs, both practical and psychological?

4. Are Sarah's ill-chosen comments at the meetings with Amber (p. 32) and Bonnie (pp. 89-90, p. 93) the result of the natural awkwardness between a birth mother and a potential adoptive mother or do they reveal deeper insecurities in Sarah? Does the adoption process inevitably involve a certain amount of willful deception, unenforceable promises (p. 87), and a “ceremony of approval . . . [that is] as with all charades. . . . wanly ebullient, necessary, and thin” (p. 95)?

5. What is the significance of Tassie's first impression of Edward-“one could see it was his habit to almost imperceptibly dominate and insult”-and her realization that “[d]espite everything, [Sarah] was in love with him” (p. 91)? Does Edward's behavior at dinner and the “small conspiracy” he and Tassie establish (pp. 112-114) offer a more sympathetic (or at least more understandable) view of him? Are there other passages in the novel that bring out the contradictions between his outward behavior and his private thoughts?

6. Does A Gate at the Stairs accurately reflect the persistence of racism in America? What do the comments and encounters sprinkled throughout in the novel (pp. 80, 112, 151, 167, 229) show about the various forms racism takes in our society?

7. Do you agree with Sarah's statement, “Racial blindness-now there's a very white idea” (p. 86)? What do the discussions in Sarah's support group (pp. 154-57; 186-90; 194-97) reveal about the different perceptions of reality held by African-Americans and white liberals? What role do class, wealth, and professional status play in opinions expressed by various members of the group? In this context, what is the import of Tassie's description of Mary-Emma's affection for Reynaldo: “the colorblindness of small children is a myth; she noticed difference and sameness, with almost equal interest; there was no 'Dilemma of Difference' as my alliteration-loving professors occasionally put it” (p. 169)?

8. How would you characterize the comments about religion throughout the novel (pp. 41, 108, 129)? What is the significance of the fact that Tassie's mother is Jewish, a woman of “indeterminate ethnicity” in a churchgoing community? Why are Roberta Marshall and Sarah so cavalier about Bonnie's insistence that her child be raised as a Catholic (p. 87)? How do Reynaldo's revelations about his activities and beliefs (pp. 204-8) fit into Tassie's view of God and religion in general? On page 296, Tassie offers a thoughtful explanation of the purpose of religion in people's lives. Are there other lessons about the meaning of religion or faith to be found in the novel?

9. The title of the book comes from a ballad Tassie writes with her roommate (p. 219-20). What does music-playing the bass and singing to Mary-Emma-represent to Tassie? How does it connect her to her own family and to Mary-Emma?

10. Does the novel prepare you for Sarah's dreadful confession (pp. 232-242)? What particular incidents or conversations foreshadow the revelations? How do Sarah's “conventional” beliefs about men and women affect the couple's behavior during and after the tragedy (pp. 240, 244)? Was their decision to move and start anew the best solution under the circumstances? Do the reasons Sarah gives for remaining with Edward make emotional sense? If they had been able to keep their secret hidden, would they have been able to create a happy future with Mary-Emma?

11. Nannies and other household help often grasp things families don't realize about themselves. Is Tassie an objective chronicler of life in the Brink-Thornwood household? What biases does she bring to her observations? How do her perceptions and opinions change over the course of the novel? In what ways does her growing attachment to Mary-Emma and her relationship with Sarah account for these changes? In what ways are they attributable to the developments in her personal life?

12. How do the vignettes of Tassie's visits home and her life in Troy play off one another? What do Tassie's conversations with her family bring out about the ambivalence she (and many college students) experience? Why does Tassie fail to recognize the depth of Robert's pain and confusion? Is Robert's decision to join the army given the attention it deserves by the rest of the family?

13. Does the Midwestern setting of the novel offer a distinctive perspective on September 11, 2001, and the mood of the country? How were the events experienced in other parts of America-for example, in the cities directly affected by the terrorist attacks?

14. Lorrie Moore has been widely praised for her affecting depictions of human vulnerability and her dark humor. How does Moore integrate clever one-liners, puns, and wordplay into the serious themes she is exploring? What role does humor play in exposing the thoughts, feelings, and fears the characters are unwilling or unable to express? Does it heighten the emotional force of the novel or diminish it?

15. “I had also learned that in literature-perhaps as in life-one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself” (p. 263-64]. How does this quotation apply to your reading of A Gate at the Stairs?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

What Our Readers Are Saying

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mickpro, April 6, 2014 (view all comments by mickpro)
This is a superb book tells so much and is so wise, all from the vantage point of a young woman in college. Part coming of age, sexual awakening, witty Midwestern slice of life, racial identity, rural vs mildly urban, this book takes on so much and does it beautifully. Tassie Keltjin, the narrator, is a voice unlike others that I've read and she does with wonderful insights and solid reactions to situations. Her wry, clever wit carries her through it all and into my heart. Lorrie Moore may be best known for her short stories, but she sure can write a terrific novel.
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Martha Crunkleton, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by Martha Crunkleton)
The voice of the college-age young woman who is the protagonist of this novel is crystal clear and spot on.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780375708466
Author:
Moore, Lorrie
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
20100831
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
7.92x5.28x.74 in. .56 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Coming of Age
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History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

A Gate at the Stairs (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 336 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375708466 Reviews:
"Review" by , "The admired fiction writer Lorrie Moore has a unique gift. She can be screamingly funny — and in the very next paragraph, able to convey terrible grief....Her language is dazzling."
"Review" by , "[ A Gate at the Stairs ] is a gift."
"Review" by , "Moore is such a bright, witty writer...A Gate at the Stairs is Moore's first novel in 15 years, which means a whole generation of readers has grown up thinking of her only as one of the country's best short-story writers. Get ready to expand your sense of what she — and a novel — can do...what's so endearing is Moore's ability to tempt us with humor into the surreal boundaries of human experience, those strange decisions that make no sense out of context, the things we can't believe anyone would do. The novel's climax takes us right into the disorienting logic of grief for a scene that's both horrifying and tender, a grotesque violation of taboos that's entirely forgivable and heartbreaking."
"Review" by , "Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny. Most of all, Moore is capable of enlisting not just our sympathies but our sorrows....This book plumbs deep because it is anchored deep."
"Review" by , "Contemporary fiction has produced few noticers with a better eye and more engaging voice than Tassie Keltjin, the narrator of Lorrie Moore's deceptively powerful A Gate at the Stairs. For much of Moore's first novel in 15 years — her short stories have established her as something of a Stateside Alice Munro — Tassie's eye and ear are pretty much all there is to the book....The enrichment of such complications makes this one of the year's best novels."
"Review" by , "The unique vision and exquisite writing cast a spell."
"Review" by , "[A] luminous, heart-wrenchingly wry novel....Moore's graceful prose considers serious emotional and political issues with low-key clarity and poignancy...generous flashes of wit endow this stellar novel with great heart."
"Review" by , "Her most powerful book yet....An indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11....The novel explores, with enormous emotional precision, the limitations and insufficiencies of love, and the loneliness that haunts even the most doting of families....Most memorably, in this haunting novel Ms. Moore gives us stark, melancholy glimpses into her characters' hearts, mapping their fears and disappointments, their hidden yearnings and their more evanescent efforts to hold on to their dreams in the face of unfurling misfortune."
"Review" by , "Fifty years from now, it may well turn out that the work of very few American writers has as much to say about what it means to be alive in our time as that of Lorrie Moore."
"Review" by , “Moore tells a deeply troubling story about race and class and gender in post-9/11 America. And she does it with characteristic wit and intelligence, without letting a soul off the hook....Dazzling.”
"Synopsis" by , Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award

Finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction

Chosen as a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Kansas City Star, Financial Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Real Simple

Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gentleman farmer, has come to a university town as a student. When she takes a job as a part-time nanny for a mysterious and glamorous family, she finds herself drawn deeper into their world and forever changed. Told through the eyes of this memorable narrator, A Gate at the Stairs is a piercing novel of race, class, love, and war in America.

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