2015 Reading Challenge: “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t”—A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

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).

I digress.

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.

Fulfilled “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

336 pages
Vintage Contemporaries
Published: 2009

Up next? “A book you own but never read” — Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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