- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

By Lorrie Moore
Knopf, $25, 322 pages

By Jacquelyn Mitchard
Random House, $25, 231 pages

Like the short stories and novels that have made Lorrie Moore so popular, her new book, “A Gate at the Stairs,” features a female protagonist with an unusual name, a Midwestern setting and the juxtaposition of humor and pathos. Eagerly anticipated (her last novel came out in 1994; a collection of short stories, “Birds of America,” appeared in 1998) the new book has received some glowing reviews and briefly appeared on best seller lists; it is also being described on book blogs and among friends, with some justification, as “disappointing” and “too punny.”

The new book’s narrator is Tassie Keltjin, a farm girl freshman at an indeterminate state university in the winter after September 11, 2001. Answering an ad for a “childcare provider” she meets an attractive middle-aged couple about to adopt a baby. Sarah Brink runs an organic restaurant and drives a car sporting numerous bumper stickers including one that says, “If God speaks through burning bushes, let’s burn Bush and listen to what God says.”

Her husband, Edward Thornwood, is a scientist — acerbic, distracted, and vaguely flirtatious. Taking Tassie with them, they visit a foster home and then adopt the one-year old bi-racial child they meet there, upgrading her name from Mary to Mary-Emma.

The baby adapts to her new home and to her babysitter who discovers in the care of the toddler a pleasant counterpoint to the solitude of her apartment (her roommate is usually with her boyfriend) and the aridity of her studies. She is amused by the weekly parents group Sarah convenes to consider issues of racism (its voices are “alternately operatic, vaudevillean, sybillant, and tedious”) and shocked by an experience of causal prejudice in a passerby’s reaction to Mary-Emma. When she begins an affair of her own, Tassie takes the baby along with her on visits to her beau.

But by the time the school year is over, the ominous mood that has been hovering has closed in. Sarah and Edward’s ghastly backstory has been revealed, Tassie’s boyfriend has turned out to be other than what he seemed, Mary-Emma’s fate has changed again, and war has moved from background noise to personal reality.

Ms. Moore is fascinated with language and her writing is full of clever meditations on it. Reflecting on her generation’s overuse of the word “awesome” Kassie reflects that “perhaps … it was a kind of anti-depressant; inflated rhetoric to keep the sorry truth at bay.” As a “nerdy college girl” Tassie finds her days full of “books that were rabbit holes of escape.” Someone she knows has a father who is black and a white mom so she is called “inter-Rachel.” Tassie reflects on the names of colors in a clothing shop — “colors one could recite … like a jump rope rhyme. Paprika. Pinot, Persimmon! Pomegranate, Pine! Poplar, Pistachio, Peacock, Petal Pink, Polar Peach, Pumpkin, Pepper, Plum, Pineapple, Periwinkle, Peridot, Primrose, Palm Pea, Poppy, Puce ….” That this is but half of the riff on colors’ names will give an indication of Moore’s indulgence in this kind of digression.

Despite its many such amusing asides, this is not a cheerful book. It is at its most gripping not when displaying the author’s undeniable cleverness, but when describing the summer of solitude and grief Tassie spends at home after her freshman year. The plot is contrived, the political preachiness tedious (“the all-volunteer army was at the beginning of its being spread too thin”), but the lyrical evocation of a young person confronting sadness and the complexity of things against the background of summer boredom and heat rings true.

“The fulfillingness of my life’s every day had not just faltered,” Tassie finds, “but completely stopped.” Life, she further discovers “[is] unbearable yet everywhere it [is] borne.” Returning to college in the fall she finds skies “like a black-and-white photo of sky,” omnipresent political protest (she was “on the side of dissent and despair”), and reminders of Mary-Emma. But her anguished experience has produced growth. Tassie’s reaction to the creepy Edward when he reappears will gladden the heart of anyone who was ever a confused, unhappy, vulnerable college kid.

In fiction, we are more likely to meet characters like Tassie, navigating the shoals of youthful angst, than the women they will become as they enter the deep waters of midlife, but Jacquelyn Mitchard’s new book presents one such. Beth Cappadora appeared in Mitchard’s previous book, “The Deep End of the Ocean,” as the anguished mother of a son abducted as a three- year-old and then, miraculously, returned to the family nine years later. That that book’s sequel, “No Time to Wave Goodbye,” should come out just as the real life Kaycee Lee Dugard was being reunited with the family she was plucked from seventeen years ago in California suggests that the topic is not just the working of a lurid imagination.

Children do get abducted and, occasionally, reunited with their families. But compelling as it is, this highly emotional scenario obscures the new book’s more interesting aspect — its secondary focus on Beth. In the new book Ben, the once abducted child, is grown and married with a baby daughter, and he and his sister, Kerry, have helped their brother, Vincent, produce a documentary about abducted children. The film is brilliant and widely praised but the spotlight it shines on a difficult topic and on the families it has devastated is almost too illuminating. Beth feels violated and betrayed that her family’s pain has been revived and exposed yet she finds in her most difficult child’s success “one of the only entirely happy moments of her life.”

“No Time to Wave Goodbye” has a truly surprising dramatic twist half-way through but its strength is not the plot, which gets bogged down in tedious detail. Rather, it is in this portrait of a mother accepting and growing into the complexities — the limitations and the joys — of relationships with adult children. This is a subject with which many readers, surely, will identify.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.

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