A Gate at the Stairs is a metaphor. No matter your station in life, there are always obstacles. But some "obstacles" -- like race, or past mistakes, or ignorance, or preconceived notions -- are harder to climb over than others. In and of itself, that's a great message, but the plot with which Moore frames this idea is such a tangle of subplots, digressions and varying styles, that this idea almost gets lost amidst the din.
In a thinly veiled fictional version of Madison, Wisconsin (Moore teaches at the University of Wisconsin), freshman Tassie Keltjin lands a job as a babysitter for the adopted, mixed-race child of Sarah Brink and her husband Edward. But Sarah and Edward's marriage is rocky, and they have secrets. But Tassie gets a boyfriend who isn't what he seems. But Sarah is a restauranteur. But Tassie's farmer father and Jewish mother are a little kooky. But racism exists, even in a liberal college town. But Tassie's brother is joining the army. But nothing is ever what it seems in a paranoid post-9/11 world.
Moore seems to have the literary version of attention deficit disorder. The style and story shifted so often that it was hard for me as a reader to get comfortable. When Sarah has meetings with other parents of mixed-race children, Moore writes these scenes as pages of modifier-less dialogue. But then the next section might be a long description of flowers and nature, practically bursting with over-adorned, metaphor-laden prose. And even when the plot is moving along, Moore will key off a single word or phrase, and spend a several-paragraph digression making jokes or describing further or generally trying to "wow" you with her words. (Here's an example: "Contents may shift during the flight, we had been told. Would that be good or bad? And what about discontents? Would they shift, too? And what if the oxygen deprivation in the cabin caused one to think in idle spirals and desperate verbal coils like this for the rest of one's life?")
When I did get comfortable enough to slow down or reread to get some of the jokes (like the one above about "contents shifting during flight"), I did enjoy them. Moore is frequently a clever and witty writer. But more often than not, these seemed like spaghetti-at-the-wall gimmicks. If it stuck with the reader, great. If not, well, Moore had amused herself. Similarly, with the multiple themes Moore tries to tease out of her many subplots, there just seemed to be too many balls in the air. Instead of trying to catch one or two of them to give them the appropriate attention and treatment, Moore actually just drops them all.
So, now this is a bit awkward. I get to announce the winner of my giveaway...of a book I didn't care for. That'll learn me to have a contest for a book before I've read it! Anyway....and the winner is....Lisa, at bibliophiliac. Congratulations! Also, I'd highly recommend checking out Lisa's blog -- she writes with great enthusiasm and flair, and it's a lot of fun to read!