Karen Stolz

"Fanny and Sue"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran MAR 03, 2003)

Fanny And Sue by Karen Stolz
My face-to-face book group chose A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for our February selection. We all liked it well enough, afterwards my friend Julie remarked, and I agreed, that it had been pleasantly refreshing to read something positive. No abused women, no rape or incest, just a realistic, pleasant, and well-written story. I am doubly pleased now to have discovered a new book that reads in a similar vein -- Fanny and Sue written by Karen Stolz. Far from the current popular novels that feature a dead fourteen-year old girl looking down from heaven or a teenage boy marooned on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, this is a sweet old-fashioned slice of life story.

Read excerptWe met the titular Fanny and Sue in 1926 as six-year olds twins, identical in every respect except personality and follow their lives until 1940. The slim story follows them through illness, accidents, and just the sheer joy of girlhood. The two love each other quite deeply, although a little warily at times. Flamboyant, theatrical Fanny reeks of self-confidence even as a seven-year old. She feels, "Sue couldn't help doing foolish things…When God had let them grow together there inside Mom, he had just poured in the smarts a little unevenly." This comes from a girl who contemplates dropping her baby brother out of their apartment window. Most adults would probably disagree with this view of the "smarts," most labelling Sue, "the good twin," even though she is given to tattling and has just a tad too much self-righteousness. Sue,who vows early on to become a schoolteacher, wonders "if God had given Fanny a smaller heart than normal."

Stolz alternates using Fanny and Sue as the narrators, at first it is difficult to keep track of which twin is which, the girls even suspect their father can't tell them apart, although that doesn't last for long. Stolz works hard to keep the language simple and childlike, which is not to say childish. It is quite a trick to have young girls at the focus of story without it becoming precious or cutesy. The girls seem real, although I did think their characters seemed set too early on. The girls, outgoing Fanny and bookish Sue, did not really change throughout the story, only the outward manifestations of their personalities changed as they grew. Some may find this realistic, although I found it a bit too convenient. I was reminded throughout the book, of Tony Earley's marvelous study in minimalism, Jim the Boy since both books tell sweet stories with neither flounce nor flurry.

The story is really a collection of anecdotes about the girls in a more innocent time. Popping corn on the kitchen stove, using bluing to whiten the wash, and making homemade fudge may read like science fiction to some. The two girls live with their family in St. Louis, which is where I live now, and is part of the reason I was drawn to the book. It really could have taken place in any big city but Stolz does include a few details about life here; her foreword says she drew on her father's St. Louis childhood. I don't know what it says about St. Louis, but most of the institutions she mentions are still alive and kicking. The Fox Theater, the Muny Opera, Crown Candy Kitchen, and Ted Drewes Frozen Custard Stand are all Gateway City landmarks. If you're ever here, I strongly urge you to visit at least Ted Drewes, purely for its, ahem, historical value. The custard is pretty good too.

The stories sprinkled throughout Fanny and Sue are at once quaint, wool bathing suits and streetcars, and terrifying, bouts of polio and scarlet fever in the days before antibiotics. She also gives the girls a terrific set of supporting characters, who stay true to the historical time period and more importantly, stay true to the girls. The story may lack a lot of flash and action, but it more than makes up for it in heart.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Fanny and Sue at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Karen StolzKaren Stolz was raised in a small town in Kansas. She received a MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1982 and has taught creative writing at Austin Community College and currently teaches at St. Edward’s University New College and at the Writer’s League of Texas. She has had short stories and essays published nationally. Her first novel, World of Pies, was a June 2000 Booksense Selection and was listed by the School Library Journal as one of the Best Adult Books for Young Adults in 2000. Stolz lives in Austin with her son.
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