"A short paper nerve baked into an ear."
That's the phrase, on pg. 7 of A Gate at the Stairs, after which I did not want to stop reading Lorrie Moore's new novel.
The item that Moore is describing, weirdly, improbably, and perfectly, is a fortune cookie. The novel's 20-year-old protagonist, Tassie, collects fortunes from the Chinese restaurant near her apartment and uses them as bookmarks. And in the lines preceding the above description, we find what has to be the only documented instance of an author segueing from the events of 9/11 directly into a discussion of Chinese food: "Though the 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' (I looked around frantically, never getting the breathing right), mostly our conversations slid back shockingly, resiliently, to other topics: backup singers for Aretha Franklin, or which Korean-owned restaurant had the best Chinese food."
All of the significant events in A Gate at the Stairs, and there are many, are similarly flattened. Over the course of Moore's excellent novel, there are few kinds of grief that Tassie won't suffer, but the plot's movements have an inexorable quality that doesn't permit melodrama, finds even sentiment unseemly.
Tassie is a country girl, come from her parents' farm to go to college in the big city of Troy, Wisconsin. As the novel opens, she needs a job: "I had donated my plasma several times for cash, but the last time I had tried, the clinic had turned me away, saying my plasma was cloudy from my having eaten cheese the night before. Cloudy Plasma! I would be the bass guitarist! It was so hard not to eat cheese."
The incredibly likeable Tassie begins working as a nanny for a white couple who are trying to adopt a child. When they receive custody of a half-black baby, Tassie unexpectedly finds herself a participant in a high-stakes situation, the dynamics of which she doesn't fully understand—even as she struggles to negotiate her own romantic life.
If there's anything to criticize here, it's that the flyaway strands of the plot could use taming—the book has more storylines than it needs. But line by line, Moore's writing never flags. In short: Read this one.