I say “sort of unbelievable” not because any of the events in A Gate at the Stairs are unbelievable, but rather because there are sentences in this book, full paragraphs really, that so capture some essence of the world or of worldly experience in ways that would be, well, unbelievable, were they not regularly happening. Each page, each paragraph offer up gems – what is it when gems are not rare, but simply precious? – that left me feeling like I had been punched (such accuracy in describing (my) human experience does feel, for whatever reason, visceral) and hugged (such palpable beauty cannot but feel like an embrace?).
Suspending (however difficultly) my adoration of the descriptions in the text, the plot and characters are closer to pretty good than to outstanding. The protagonist, Tassie, does not always behave in ways I might expect her to, and I suppose this might be meant to get at the unpredictability of human behaviour, and yet, it didn’t feel like a reasonable level of variability, and more an unevenness in character development. (SPOILER: This was particularly the case in the scene when Tassie climbs in the coffin – while her decision to do so allows for a captivating description of Robert and a thoughtful meditation on grief and uncertainty, her action does not properly align with Tassie as we know her. This sort of “surprise” character decisions extend to secondary characters like Sarah and Edward, and are, for this reader, distracting and disappointing (as the text is otherwise… brilliant).
I sat for a few minutes with the conclusion of the book. I felt at the point that Mary-Emma leaves that the book ought to end with her departure. My sense that the book could have concluded there asked me to reconsider the central themes and foci (yeah! foci!) of the novel: was the book to be about the relationship between Tassie and Mary-Emma or about the relationships Tassie has (and ignores) more generally? Given that the book does *not* end with Mary-Emma’s departure we must give credit to the latter idea that this is a book about Tassie and her interactions with the world – with her family, with her roommates, with her ridiculous (and poorly constructed) boyfriend. If that’s the case I might have liked fuller, and earlier, development of her relationship with her family. Except that perhaps the poignancy of the conclusion might be lost had she “attended” to her family better. Ah… let it be that I am unsettled by the conclusion both for the material it contains and for its impact on how the rest of the novel reads.
I’ll suggest reading this book because of its forceful beauty in capturing the essence of moments, places and people. With the caveat that the plot and character may leave you frustrated – not because they are (in any way) bad, but because they are only very good.