On My Bookshelf: Stones for Ibarra

I’m catching up on some of the books I read last year. Stones for Ibarra (Penguin, 1984) by Harriet Doerr was one of my favorites.

Here is the blurb from the publisher:

Two Americans, Richard and Sara Everton, are the only foreigners in Ibarra. They live among people who both respect and misunderstand them, and gradually, the villagers–at first enigmas to the Evertons–come to teach them much about life and the relentless tide of fate.

This book is pitched as novel, but in my view it is organized as a series of stories that make up a novel. Each story feels to me that it can stand alone, but also works to add layers to the larger arc of the narrative. The prose is lush, elegant. It took me a while to get through this rather small book, and part of the reason was that some sentences were so finely crafted, so beautiful that I would read and then re-read them again. As I made my way through this book I admired the subtlety that Doerr employs. It is clear that she is a master of descriptive language, but she holds back and uses it only in the best, most needed places. There is such a nice balance of allowing the reader to fill in the spaces of what they are experiencing in the story world but also giving them guideposts to realize that world fully. The result is prose that doesn’t weigh down the work, but instead elevates it and the reader to an entirely new place.

It wasn’t until I reached the end of the book that I researched more about Harriet Doerr and became even more enamored with her. She went back to complete her college degree at 67, Stones for Ibarra was her first novel she published at the age of 73. Oh, and it went on to win the National Book Award. Yvonne Daley wrote a great article “Late Bloomer” about Harriet Doerr.

It all makes me ponder the relationship between writing and life experience. Could Doerr have written such a fine book at 23?  I don’t doubt her writing talent at any age, but I do think a person with a rich, long experience in life brings more to the words on the page. I highly recommend Stones for Ibarra and I can’t wait to read more of Doerr’s work.

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