Lorrie Moore reading from A Gate at the Stairs | October 6 at the Brookline Booksmith

Loorie Moore speaking at Book Expo America

This season's "Writers & Readers" series has promised and delivered some heavy-hitters to both the basement of the Brookline Booksmith and its larger, glitzier counterpart, the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Tucked in a calendar of events among household names like Nick Hornby, Jonathan Safran Foer, and John Irving is Lorrie Moore, a Midwestern gem known across a growing number of literary circles, primarily for her short stories. This time around, Moore's taking a break from the short stories and making what appears to be a triumphant comeback with her third novel.

On Tuesday night, the 52-year-old Moore was met by a packed house at the Booksmith, whose overflow was obliged to listen to the basement reading broadcast up to the store's main floor. Perhaps the anticipation brewing during Moore's 11-year book-writing hiatus had reached its peak: fans were chomping at the bit to catch soundbites of the author reading from her latest work, A Gate at the Stairs, the coming-of-age tale of a clever but confused college girl, set immediately post-9/11.

Moore recited an excerpt from the novel in which 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin is interviewed by her future employer, an excited restaurant owner and soon-to-be adoptive mother in need of a babysitter. As the conversation between the two women progresses, it becomes clear that the meat of A Gate at the Stairs is not found in the tragedies that strike Tassie and those close to her -- the 9/11 terrorist attacks, her brother's decision to join the Army, a sudden loss of love, or the dissolution of a marriage -- but in their more subtly disturbing and hilarious underpinnings.

The job-interview scene shows Moore's knack for honing in on the self-consciousness that infects her protagonist's world, as Tassie and her future employer awkwardly strive to reach common ground: "I accidentally nodded. I had no idea, conversationally, where we were," Moore read, speaking as Tassie. "I searched, as I too often found myself having to do, to find a language, or even an octave, in which to speak. I wondered how old she was."

But Moore seemed to have little difficulty in finding a language in which to address her audience. Infused with a Juno-like snappiness and sarcasm, the sort of dark and feminine humor that characterizes Tassie Keltjin and A Gate at the Stairs is evidently an offshoot of Moore's own persona. Speaking with a sly grin, the author repeatedly reverted to the type of self-deprecation that can lighten, sometimes frustratingly, the most serious of inquiries. When asked if she prefers to identify herself primarily as a writer (as opposed to a mother or a teacher, roles she's assumed during her decade-long hiatus), Moore explained: "It could jinx you, I suppose ... but I'm not big on self-identification. I have no sense of self." Next question, please.

-Carrie Battan

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