It’s hard to imagine this novel working in the third person, because we need to see Tassie’s life through her eyes. As she...

A GATE AT THE STAIRS

In How Fiction Works, the tutorial by the New Yorker critic and Harvard professor, James Wood writes, “Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.”

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. And they are more than enough, for the 20-year-old college student makes for good company. Perceptive, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, she lulls the reader into not taking the matter-of-fact events of Tassie’s life too seriously, until that life darkens through a series of events that even the best noticers might not have predicted. Because her ostensible roommate now lives with a boyfriend, we get to know Tassie very well—as a fully fleshed character rather than a type—and spend a lot of time inside her head. She splits her year between the university community more liberal than the rest of the Midwest and the rural Wisconsin town where her father is considered more of a “hobbyist” farmer than a real one. “What kind of farmer’s daughter was I?” she asks. A virgin, but more from lack of opportunity than moral compunction (she compares her dating experiences to an invisible electric fence for dogs), and a bass player, both electric and stand-up. Singing along to her instrument, she describes “trying to find the midway place between melody and rhythm—was this searching not the very journey of life?” Explains Moore of her protagonist, “Once I had the character and voice of Tassie I felt I was on my way. She would be the observer of several worlds that were both familiar and not familiar to her…Initially I began in the third person and it was much more of a ghost story and there were a lot of sisters and, well, it was a false start.”

It’s hard to imagine this novel working in the third person, because we need to see Tassie’s life through her eyes. As she learns some crucial lessons outside the classroom, the reader learns as well to be a better noticer. Tassie’s instincts are sound, but her comic innocence takes a tragic turn, as she falls into her first serious romance, finds a job as nanny for an adopted, biracial baby and suffers some aftershocks from 9/11 a long way from Manhattan. The enrichment of such complications makes this one of the year’s best novels, yet it is Tassie’s eye that makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-375-40928-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2009

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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