When I first read Lorrie Moore I thought she was French; this was because I read her debut novel, Anagrams, in French, which was an extraordinary thing to do when you think about that book, but it worked really well, so well in fact that it was years before I realized I’d been reading a translation. Moore has a writing style that, if transposed into music, would become jazz. She riffs endlessly, as if whatever lands in front of her narrating eye sparks off endless metaphors and inventive ideas. This makes her a rich and rewarding writer at times, an infuriatingly digressive one at others. A Gate At The Stairs, her third novel and a shortlist contender for the Orange prize, finds her on gloriously creative form and still not quite able to sculpt her material into the shapeliness of novel-length fiction.
The story concerns Tassie Keltjin, a typically sensitive, wry and directionless heroine, who escapes her provincial farming background to arrive in Troy for a madcap collection of college modules. She’s also lonely and needs to earn some cash, and so she becomes embroiled in the lives of Edward Thornwood and Sarah Brink, a career-oriented couple in late middle age who have decided to adopt a toddler. Sarah Brink is a vivid character, a restaurateur with a predilection for complicated dishes and an over-developed sense of political correctness. The little girl they adopt, Emmie, (and this is one of the best parts of the book, laying bare the ludicrous nature of adoption, a process that matters so much to all concerned that it has become nonsensical in its rules and regulations) is African-American and the narrative finds its greatest punch when wondering what to make of the toxic mix of casual racism and over-cautious colour sensitivity in the Midwest. For instance, Tassie gets called out by Sarah for teaching the song ‘I Been Working On The Railroad’ to her, and to Tassie’s incredulous reply of “You’re serious?” Sarah replies
‘”Kind of.” She looked right through me. “I’m not sure.” And then she went upstairs as if to go figure it out. When she came back down she added “Correct subject-verb agreement is best when children are learning language, so be careful what you sing. It’s an issue when raising kids of color. A simple grammatical matter can hold them back in life. Down the road.”’
The issues of racism, the complexities of adoption and the relationship between Tassie, the child and her employers are the beating heart of the book, and all focus on the way that contemporary society gets so caught up in policing the details that the awful flaws in the big picture get completely overlooked. But there’s also a bunch of other stuff thrown in for good measure that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. I still like Lorrie Moore a great deal, and think she is immensely talented, but she is often frustrating and this is a far from perfect novel.
By contrast, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic had far lower ambitions for itself and exceeded them elegantly. I’d long been meaning to try Hoffman and this book was another triumph for the stockpile, having been purchased in 1999. What I particularly loved about the novel was the storytelling voice of the narrator; it’s just like being sat down at the feet of an iconic grandmother and being told an adult fairy tale. Literally – this is effectively magic realism although so gently and cleverly done that you’re seduced by it every step of the way. The Owens sisters, Sally and Gillian, have struggled all their lives with being different. Orphaned at a young age they were brought up by their aunts, who received the lovelorn women of the town in their kitchen at dusk and provided them with the remedies they needed for their aching, or breaking, hearts. Except of course quite often the solution turns out to be worse than the problem, and so the sisters grow up with both a jaded view of love as well as an ambivalent connection to their witchy legacy. Gillian takes to breaking hearts and runs away to the West coast, while Sally stays the all-too-sensible person she has always been, trying to bring up her two daughters in concrete normality, having lost her husband to an accident that was predicted but not prevented.
Of course, nothing can stay in stasis forever, and just as her daughters are reaching difficult ages themselves, so Gillian comes back into Sally’s life, bringing a whole lot of problems with her. Over the course of the sisters’ uneasy reunion a lot will happen, and all of it destined to sort out the knots and problems that have been tangling up their lives. This was a charming book, delightfully redemptive, engagingly written, warm and vivid and fun. It requires you to suspend disbelief quite comprehensively, so don’t go there if you’re in the mood for gritty realism. But I was in the mood to be entertained and most certainly was. I don’t doubt it will bear no resemblance to the novel, but I’ve sent for the DVD with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Has anyone seen the movie? I will save it up for a dreary day.