Tassie Keltjin, the observant protagonist of Lorrie Moore's comic, moving and ultimately harrowing new novel A Gate at the Stairs, is -- like most of us -- easily distracted and emotionally unsettled. She's a Midwestern college student with a Lutheran father and Jewish mother who grew up on a farm that's really a ``kitchen garden that had gotten slightly out of hand.'' She's romantically inexperienced and frets about her youthful passivity: ``It had started to worry me that if I wasn't careful my meekness could become a habit, a tic, something hardwired. . . .''
And while Tassie is shrewdly aware of life's contradictions (why, she wonders, do the country girls at her university town shiver all winter in dime-store cotton when their suburban counterparts luxuriate in thick, warm socks from J. Crew or L.L. Bean?), she knows that too often the most important clarifications come only in retrospect. Arriving at a private home for a job interview, she is not put off by the place's unkempt appearance. And thus she misses something she should have noticed, what she needed to see: ``[S]omeone's ill-disguised decrepitude, items not cared for properly but fixed repeatedly in a make-do fashion, needful things having gotten away from their caregiver.''
Those ``needful things'' and the slapdash repairs we make so carelessly form the heart of Moore's witty yet often devastating examination of modern life, set against contemporary themes (racism, war, family turbulence). Through the novels Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and the story collections Birds of America, Like Life and Self-Help, Moore has honed her insights into what makes us tick, especially if we are young women. Through the guise of a coming-of-age novel, she depicts us with ruthless honesty -- as thoughtless, selfish and bewildered until circumstances force us to confront hard truths.
A Gate at the Stairs is a post-9/11 novel, though it touches only glancingly on the event, which at the story's beginning has not put a huge strain on Tassie. ``[T]he movie theaters closed for two nights, and for a week even our yoga teacher put up an American flag and sat in front of it, in a lotus position, eyes closed, saying, `Let us now breathe deeply in honor of our great country. . . .' '' But things quickly revert to normal. Tassie spends the holidays with her parents and her younger brother, who is mulling his future after high school. His grades preclude college. Should he work on the farm? Join the military?
Tassie, distracted, doesn't know. She returns to campus and takes the job at the decrepit house as a nanny to Sarah and Edward, who plan to adopt a baby. The process is difficult, and Tassie's awkward presence at a series of meetings with pregnant moms confuses her further. Is this normal? Is this right? ``One shouldn't buy babies,'' Edward confides, making her wonder how he truly feels about the endeavor.
But biracial, 2-year-old Mary is finally chosen; she'll soon become Mary Emma, then Emmie. Remember those neglected, needful things? They will rear up suddenly, as does the ugly specter of racism. ``She'll darken up, of course,'' the adoption agent warns, then defends herself with a story about her biracial son: ``When he was ten years old he was watching Gregory Hines dance on TV, and he said, `Look, Mom, that dancing man is adopted.' It was the cutest thing.''
Watchful Tassie thinks otherwise: ``It didn't sound that cute. It sounded odd. It sounded like it had the sharp edge of a weird lie poking into it.''
Such weird lies will dog Tassie, who isn't watching what she loves as carefully as she thinks. She falls in love, with a boy and the baby. She endures the overprotectiveness of Sarah, who bakes library books to free them of germs and eavesdrops on the ultra-political conversation that goes on at Sarah's parties (``Postracial is a white idea.'' ``If you reject religion, you reject blackness''). She can never get warm in the harsh Midwestern winter even though the real cold hasn't yet seeped into her. But it will, and there is nothing she can do to stop it. After all: ``One was helpless before everything.''
Moore's great gift is not only her sharp, clever use of language but also her uncanny ability to balance the ironic with the bittersweet, the humor with the knife point of sorrow. Few authors achieve the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy so deftly. A Gate at the Stairs has the power to make you laugh and cry, sometimes almost simultaneously, and its wonderful, heartbreaking conclusion reminds us that no matter how we suffer, we still can reach a peculiarly human state of grace.