Okay, I confess — I never read A Gate at the Stairs, which I was supposed to before arriving on campus at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York freshman year. It was required reading for all first-years, for the purpose of discussion during our freshman seminar courses. The author, Lorrie Moore, was from Glens Falls, New York, just a stone’s throw away.
My freshman seminar of choice, Virtual Republic, was fascinating and taught by one of the kindest professors I ever had, Ron Seyb (picture Stephen Colbert, but sweeter and nerdier, in the best way). Still, I was not inspired to read the book. I have a hunch that not many classmates in my seminar did either, nor most of the kids in the Class of 2015. I knew for sure neither of my roommates did.
It didn’t really matter then, though, because our syllabus was over-scheduled even without a discussion of Moore’s most recent novel. I’m pretty sure many of the other courses’ were as well (they had titles like Heretics & Visionaries, The Federal Reserve: More Money, More Problems, Care of the Heart, Human Dilemmas, What is Noir? and Can Literature Save the Environment? to name a few and to give you an idea of what being a Skidmore first-year is like).
About the book: wow. I haven’t been struck so hard by a novel since I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. None of the punishments in this book seemed to fit the crimes. Is redemption disallowed? Is no one spared? I identified with the protagonist, Tassie, so strongly that I surprised myself — except in a very barebones way (Tassie and I both came of age and attended college in a post-9/11 America), we really have little in common.
This book is about growing up in that for the first time, and that I was familiar with. The narrator experiences so many firsts over the course of the story: she is forced to confront race, religion, self-identity, love, sex, terrorism, war, family issues and loss (and all in just 336 pages, the poor girl). She dates a man who is not who he seems. Her brother ships off to join the military after graduating from high school (Class of 2002). Tassie takes a job as a nanny for a family, and these people become the fabric of her life, until the fabric starts to fray and suddenly all that’s left is a pile of string. All the while, she’s still a college student, and has no choice but to soldier on.
It’s wonderful and heartbreaking all at once and I’m glad I delved back into it after letting it fall by the wayside in 2011. Thanks, Skidmore.
Up next? “A book you own but never read” — Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut