World of Pies
by Karen Stolz

Hyperion, 2000. ISBN 0786865504.
Reviewed by Melanie Alberts
Posted on 10/30/2001

Fiction: Chick Lit

Warning: do not read World of Pies on an empty stomach! This first novel by Karen Stolz is a collection of stories that chronicles the life of a girl named Roxanne Milner of Annette, Texas. It is a gentle homage to small-town culture and cuisine, similar in tone to Jan Karon's popular first novel At Home in Mitford. In both books, a culinary cast of characters is served up at times of stress and celebration (Ms. Stolz kindly provides recipes of such homespun favorites as "Doreen's Frozen Fruit Salad," "Christina's Biscuits," and "Mary Willis's Sweet Potato Pie.") It is soon apparent that Roxanne's family appreciates the value of comfort food. "Our family believed ice cream cured anything," she says.

Karen Stolz grew up in a small town in Kansas and in 1982 received an MFA in writing from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. In an interview posted on her website, Ms. Stolz says that there are few parallels in Roxanne's life and her own, except: "We did seem to eat a lot of homemade, delicious food when I was a child. My dad was a small town minister, so there were church suppers and dinners at friends' houses. It was a delicious time, before we knew about fat grams and such." She cherishes happy family memories and hopes that readers of World of Pies will too: "I want them also to experience the power of family love; we hear so much about family dysfunction nowadays, and I want people to remember that families can be our comfort and strength too."

Each chapter is a self-contained story set during various summers of Roxanne's life. In the first chapter, the Milners participate in the town's first pie fair in 1962, when Roxanne is twelve years old. The family finds itself stigmatized in small ways due to Roxanne's mother's insistence that a black woman's pie be entered under her own name, and not her employer's. "A woman bakes a little piece of herself into a pie," her mother Christina declares. This is the beginning of a series of vignettes in a Southern world where the characters actually eat Moon Pies and drink RC colas and have "kissin' cousins." It is a place where people are scandalized by the sudden presence of a female mail carrier. However, Ms. Stolz succeeds in rising above clichés in forming her small-town folk. The main characters have a chance to age, change and react to life's challenges as the book unfolds. We watch amused, as feisty Roxanne slowly becomes her mother. Although the final scene is a predictable echo of Christina's teaching her daughter how to make a perfect piecrust, we know it is as inevitable as any good family tradition.

In one of the later chapters the family's fixation on food becomes almost comical, especially during the chapter where Roxanne's mother undergoes a hysterectomy. References to lemon pound cake, pancakes, donuts, sandwiches and cokes, and a barbeque dinner rule the day of Christina's operation. In the hospital cafeteria Roxanne's husband tells her before she digs into a stack of pancakes, "You know, some people lose their appetite when they're worried." "They do?" she replies.

Roxanne is a teenager when her sister Joanie is born and there are many heartfelt scenes between them. Ms. Stolz does a lovely job conjuring up sensory imagery as in this passage, one of my favorites, which follows the sudden death of their father:

"One of the things that I can't forget from that day is seeing my baby sister Joanie wake up with a start, at the dinner table, once all the commotion began. Her face rose from the table and turned immediately dark pink as she broke into tears. I knew it was from the sudden waking, but knew, too, that what we had to tell her would lock that fresh sorrow into her little heart-shaped face. I picked Joanie up, and she clung to me, wetting me with her tears, her legs enfolding me, keeping me there on earth to watch out for her."
Read World of Pies for its charming characterizations and the enjoyment of peeking into the life of a free-spirited girl who has trouble breaking away from her roots. It is the kind of tasty appetizer one would expect from a first novel, yet it satisfies you too.

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