There are few activities as painstaking, time-consuming and, ultimately, rewarding, as baking. This is something the characters in Karen Stolz’s novel World of Pies know all too well. The book tells the coming of age of Roxanne Milner as a series of short stories.
Though only a few have food as their central topic, every single one features the characters digging in to a good hearty meal, often followed by a hot home-baked dessert. As Roxanne makes clear, women in her hometown of Annette, Texas, view baking as an essential part of daily life.
The eponymous first story in the book deals with the annual pie fair in Annette and the controversy that ensues when Roxanne’s mother suggests that a neighbor’s black cook enter her sweet potato pie in the fair (the book starts in the early 1960s and spans about 20 years). Stolz accurately captures how the smallest things – a pie contest, the arrival of the town’s first mail lady, a new job, the discovery that her great aunt was a lesbian – can affect a teenage girl’s life.
As she grows older, Roxanne experiences even more dramatic events – including the birth of a baby sister when she is 15 -- but the one constant in her life is the food. Whether it’s pies or angel food cake or homemade brownies, every situation has a corresponding meal.
This lovely, funny, touching book seamlessly weaves together the complexities of growing up, love, loss, marriage, family, and, of course, eating into a compact 150 pages. Stolz also manages to create vivid, compelling characters, including Roxanne’s loving but often combative parents, her sniping Aunt Ruthie, and her sweet but troubled cousin, Tommy. Even given the book’s short length, Stolz allows the characters to grow in interesting and convincing ways. Even the characters we glimpse only briefly – such as Edward Fred, the lonely accountant who lives at the hotel where Roxanne gets her first job – take on a life of their own.
The only flaw – and it’s a very minor one – is that there are some inconsistencies in the number of years that pass and the ages of the characters. For instance, the age difference between Roxanne and her sister seems to occasionally shift by a few years.
However, that’s a very small complaint in book this engaging. And, as a bonus, Stolz has included recipes for many of the foods mentioned in the book, such as the controversial sweet potato pie and various other confections. The combination of engaging stories and sweet foods combine for a book that is, in one word, delicious.