This is my review of A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore.
Some major critics describe this book as "life-changing". That seems to be excessive praise. Amateur reviewers tend to observe that this novel is less successful than the wry, poetical short stories which are Moore's forte.
With this my only experience of her writing, I found the plot potentially sufficient for a novel and ripe with possiblities. A couple "purchase" the adoption of a mixed race child: their utter unsuitability for this, and the rotten state of their marriage, gradually become apparent. This is observed by Tassie, their exploited childminder, a naive and inexperienced yet perceptive college student, who is brought out of her dreamy state of delayed adolesence by a chain of harsh doses of reality which form the climax of the novel.
Examples of the positive aspects of the book include vivid descriptions of the weather and wildlife, the witty comedy of the egocentric non-communication of the Wednesday night mixed raced adoption parents' support group (don't recall the precise title) and some agonising desciptions of the pain of bereavement. For the funeral scene near the end, I would give five stars.
However, flashes of brilliance are too often obscured by some very self-indulgent writing. The author cannot resist going off at a tangent, piling digression on digression, in overlong and often confusing sentences. Having made a point, she just goes on and on, sometimes losing the reader completely – especially if not au fait with the American cultural allusions. She does not know when to stop! Some scenes appear unnecessary e.g. a whole chapter given to Tassie eating a meal in her employer's empty restaurant, taking up space which could have been used to develop the plot itself more. Then there is the obsession with word play and puns. This may work well in a Carol Ann Duffy-style poem, but is often inappropriate here, especially when not very funny in the first place.
This "experimental" writing inevitably means that some bits will work with one reader and not another. However, it runs the risk that too much does not work with most people. This matters because the rambling approach destroys the potential drama of some scenes, and makes most characters seem unengaging. I found the majority of them very unconvincing, particularly the adoptive mother Sarah Brink who played a major part. Small point: the adopted toddler appeared to grow up too fast in a period of a few months, and often seemed too advanced for the two year old she was meant to be.
Although I appreciate why many people admire Moore's unusual and striking use of language, I shall think carefully before embarking on another of her novels.