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Friendship Bread, a tasty, friendly read

March 25, 2011

Friendship Bread
Darien Gee
Ballantine Books April 5, 2011 400 pages
Thanks to Sara Wahlberg of Ballantine Publicity for sending me a copy!

Before you start reading this… make sure you have some kind of baked goods handy. Maybe even an Amish Bread starter of your own. If you get a starter or make a starter, you have to wait 10 days and punch it and prep it before you get baked goods. Or, make, or buy whatever other baked goods you like best. Make sure they are on hand. Then start reading. This book should come with an Amish bread starter. But that would be complex and very weird to manage.

As the book begins, Julia is still reeling, grieving the accidental death of her son Josh. When it happened a few years ago, she withdrew from the life of the town. Which, in a small, interconnected town like Avalon, was an impressive feat. She focuses inward, and on her husband and daughter Gracie.

When someone leaves a starter and a gift of a loaf on her doorstep, Julia bakes it just to humor her daughter. But you can’t bake friendship bread without having some to give away, and reaching out to people. Gradually, she forges a friendship with Madeleine Davis, an older woman who runs a tea shop in town; and Hannah, a talented concert cellist whose marriage is falling apart. All three need friendship. And recipes for all the friendship bread starters they keep having to  use, or give away. Soon, almost everyone in town has a friendship bread starter going.

I liked this novel much better once it started to open up into an ensemble. Much of the start of the book is tightly focused on Julia, slowly revealing the source of her misery, while she’s isolated with the depth of her sadness. I was looking for a little bit more levity (leavening?) some gentleness, or reasons to smile. I was happiest as Julia began to reach out, to form friendships. Also, shifting focus to Hannah or Madeleine… Honestly, the devastating grief of losing a son was more than I could get my head around. I could latch onto, maybe even understand Hannah’s loneliness, mourning her marriage and surviving her grief through learning to bake, herself. She began to carry The Joy of Cooking around as the book in her purse, loving every word.

Calling this chick lit sounds too disparaging. It does obey some of the conventions of the genre. It’s centered on well crafted women characters and their friendships, and it puts at least one of them through an emotional wringer of family tragedy that’s endemic to the genre. I enjoy how the bread brings people together. And I love the short vignettes of peripheral town characters-I wanted to know much more about the motorcycle repairman who loved to bake almost as much as he loved to ride his bike.

Now- back to the baked goods… Between the descriptions of all the tasty Amish bread variations, and the sheer stress-comfort-cookie-eating potential of Julia’s sorrow, you really do want to have baked goods on hand while you’re  reading this book. If you’re not a yeasty-bread baking kind of person, I’m a big fan of quick breads. Or try these muffins!

Even reviewing this book makes me hungry for baked goods. Mmm chocolate chip cookies… mmm pumpkin bread. Mmm, off to read something less stomach driven.

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