A Gate at the Stairs

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 8/24/2010
  • Publisher: Vintage

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In her best-selling story collection, Birds of America, "[it] will stand by itself as one of our funniest, most telling anatomies of human love and vulnerability" James McManus, front page of The New York Times Book Review), "Lorrie Moore wrote about the disconnect between men and women, about the precariousness of women on the edge, and about loneliness and loss." Now, in her dazzling new novel-- her first in more than a decade-- Moore turns her eye on the anxiety and disconnection of post-9/11 America, on the insidiousness of racism, the blind-sidedness of war, and the recklessness thrust on others in the name of love. As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer, whose "Keltjin potatoes" are justifiably famous, has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Between semesters, she takes a job as a part-time nanny. The family she works for seems both mysterious and glamorous to her, and although Tassie had once found children boring, she comes to care for, and to protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own. As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed. This long-awaited new novel by one of the most heralded writers of the past two decades is lyrical, funny, moving, and devastating; Lorrie Moore's most ambitious book to date: textured, beguiling, and wise.

Author Biography

Lorrie Moore is the author of the story collections Birds of America, Like Life, and Self-Help and the novels Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Anagrams. Her work has won honors from the Lannan Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Irish Times International Prize for Fiction, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and the PEN/Malamud Award. She is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

From the Hardcover edition.



The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people’s yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job. I was a student and needed babysitting work, and so I would walk from interview to interview in these attractive but wintry neighborhoods, the eerie multitudes of robins pecking at the frozen ground, dun-gray and stricken—though what bird in the best of circumstances does not look a little stricken—until at last, late in my search, at the end of a week, startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression—of politeness, a false promise of delicacy—for in fact I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line.

I was looking in December for work that would begin at the start of the January term. I’d finished my exams and was answering ads from the student job board, ones for “childcare provider.” I liked children—I did!—or rather, I liked them OK. They were sometimes interesting. I admired their stamina and candor. And I was good with them in that I could make funny faces at the babies and with the older children teach them card tricks and speak in the theatrically sarcastic tones that disarmed and en?thralled them. But I was not especially skilled at minding children for long spells; I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind grew peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.

I had come from Dellacrosse Central, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I’d read of in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeansanda tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.

The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced only me.

In the corridors students argued over Bach, Beck, Balkanization, bacterial warfare. Kids said things to me like “You’re from the country. Is it true that if you eat a bear’s liver you’ll die?” They asked, “Ever know someone who did you-know-what with a cow?” Or “Is it an actual fact that pigs won’t e

Excerpted from A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
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Customer Reviews

An Excellent American Novel April 4, 2011
Beautiful, gorgeous prose that took my breath away and kept my eyes glued to the page to follow every comma, adjective, and sentence length. Tassie is captivating; the brightest observer and a character for which we want everything good to follow now that she has come of age. This textbook has the quietude of poetry and the suspense of true crime. But guess what? It's literature. Run, don't walk, read, read, read. Everything is here: the Midwesterner's view of NYC, the New Yorker's view of the Midwest, innocence and its loss, love, the fullness of nature, quirky music, sex, race relations, parenting, childhood, a foodie's paradise, and potatoes. A triumph! Now I must get on with my life.
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A Gate at the Stairs: 5 out of 5 stars based on 1 user reviews.

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