Stones for Ibarra, Doerr’s first novel, was published when she was seventy-three years old. The novel began as a series of short stories based in a fictional Mexican town. Doerr wrote the first three of these stories in her late sixties, when she returned as a widow of several years to finish the bachelor’s degree she had begun as a young unmarried woman. These first stories earned for her a literary prize in London (the Transatlantic Review’s Henfield Foundation Award), a place in the writer John L’Heureux’s Stanford University creative writing class, and the attention of Viking Press editors in London and the United States. At their suggestion and with L’Heureux’s help, what had begun as a series of short stories was expanded, rearranged, and re-created as a novel. The novel was an immediate popular and critical success, earning a number of awards, including the American Book Award for First Work of Fiction. Critics recognized the influences of Graham Greene, Gabriel García Márquez, and Katherine Anne Porter in Doerr’s work, but Doerr herself simply commented that without reading, writing is impossible.
Critics have commented on Doerr’s spare prose, in which each word carries enormous weight, and have noted as well the sense of oral storytelling prevalent throughout the text. By presenting a positive but complex view of the relationships among American expatriates and native inhabitants, Stones for Ibarra is an appropriate counter to negative stereotypes perpetuated by much expatriate writing on Mexico. Doerr continued this sympathetic portrayal of both expatriates and natives in her second novel, Consider This, Señora (1993), and in some of the short stories published in The Tiger in the Grass (1995). She thus became a major voice on modern Mexico.