Book Review: The Gate at the Stairs
It has some truly astonishing, wonderful passages, elegant and haunting. I think my favorite is the description of Tassie, the main character, eating dinner by herself at a fancy restaurant the night before it will close. But overall, I didn’t like it. Moore is too in love with her own wordplay (and when you listen to it as an audiobook, as I did, you can’t skim past these sections the way you’d do on paper), and she puts things into her characters’ mouths that I just don’t believe that they would say. (Tassie is supposed to have never taken a taxi at the start of the book, let alone have flown on a plane, and yet she is credited with all sorts of metaphors connecting things to phenomena she’d never have seen.)
And the plot twists start out implausible, and eventually get so bizarre — not only does Tassie dress up as an owl to chase away mice from her father’s salad green fields, she keeps the owl costume on while she plays music and rides her scooter around town — that I started to wonder if I was supposed to conclude that she was mentally ill and an unreliable narrator, that none of the book should be believed. At least that would explain why her Jewish mother would make hamentaschen for Hanukah.
In getting ready to write this entry, I pulled up the rave reviews of the book from both the New York Times and the Washington Post that had led me to buy it in the first place. Both reviewers clearly saw the same flaws that I see: Kakatuni talks about the plot twists as “clumsy” and “fumbles,” while Charles calls the wordplay “too clever by half” and the descriptions “polished to distracting brilliance.” But both of them ultimately loved the book, and feel that it offers profound insights into the human condition. I didn’t.