You know that cozy feeling that envelopes you when you take a bite of warm chocolate cake, homemade cookies, fresh-baked bread or apple pie? Well, Darien Gee does, too — and that’s exactly how she created Friendship Bread, one of the most heartwarming books I’ve read in a long time.
It all starts with a note. “I hope you enjoy it,” reads Julia Evarts, a mother still lost in a tumult of grief after losing her son, Josh, five years earlier. On her front porch is a plate bearing a few slices of cake-like bread and a Ziploc bag full of an unknown gooey substance. Rather than call a Hazmat team, Julia inspects the Post-It and accompanying instructions for something called “Amish Friendship Bread,” a concept that intrigues her young daughter, Gracie. It’s Gracie’s curiosity that keeps Julia from chucking the disgusting thing in the trash — and it becomes a pet project for the two Evarts women, marking the first time Julia has taken an interest in something in years.
And thus begins the odyssey of a “starter” — the bag containing the beginnings of Amish Friendship Bread, a chain letter-like way of sharing baked goods with friends and neighbors. As Julia musters up the enthusiasm to bake her first batch of bread, the recipe (and more starters) are shared with the women of Avalon, Ill., a small riverside town outside Chicago. It doesn’t take long before she meets Hannah, a young cellist who arrives in town only to be greeted unceremoniously dumped by her husband, and the two eventually convene at Madeline’s Tea Salon, a beautiful old home that resident Madeline Davis has converted into a cafe and tea shop.
Also populating Avalon are Edie, a reporter at the local paper waiting for her big break; and Livvy, Julia’s estranged sister. Time and a well of pain have kept the women from speaking since Josh’s death, though Livvy desperately craves her big sister’s forgiveness. Or, if nothing else, absolution from guilt.
But it never seems like it will come.
Or will it?
Over the course of one novel, Darien Gee has created characters I want to befriend, console and share a kitchen with — especially if brownies are involved. For as often as my stomach rumbled while reading Friendship Bread, a novel that had me craving both hugs and dessert, I was so wrapped up in Gee’s storylines that I barely stopped to eat or drink or breathe for three days.
Okay. So, you know, I had to go to work. But when I wasn’t working or helping with Spencer’s behemoth move? I was reading this book. And crying and laughing and loving it.
I’m going to be unabashedly gushy. I absolutely loved Julia, Mark and Gracie, a small family torn apart by grief. Gee did a masterful job of conveying Julia’s pain without dragging us into a pit of despair, accurately showing how tough life has become for her without invoking our pity and annoyance. All I wanted was to reach into the book, wrap Julia in my arms and force her to make amends with Livvy, her sister — what a heartbreaker that was, too. I had faith, though, that everything would turn around . . . baked goods or no baked goods.
But I’m glad there were baked goods.
I can’t discuss Friendship Bread without, you know, acknowledging the bread in question. It sounded delicious and aggravating and crazy, but I can definitely understand the appeal — even though I’m guilty of tossing out my own bags of starter in the past. When a coworker approached me years ago with a plastic bag full of flesh-colored goop, I gave her the stink eye — but accepted it (I didn’t want to be rude). It languished on my kitchen table for a few days before I decided I wasn’t committed to the project and threw it away, but not before acknowledging my own defeat.
“Google ‘Amish Friendship Bread’ on your computer and be prepared to have enough reading for a week,” Gee writes. “It’s a slice of American contemporary history, an edible chain letter that fills people with equal amounts of hope and dread.”
And it sweeps Avalon, creating quite the buzz in town and leaving townspeople with too much starter and no one willing to take it. That’s how the women arrive at Madeline’s Tea Salon and find a sympathetic ear in Madeline, the older woman who quickly becomes everyone’s friend. I adored Madeline and her propensity for baking and caring for others, all the while wishing someone would arrive to take care of her. The salon is absolutely a place I could while away a few hours, being spoiled rotten by Madeline’s delicious food and wisdom.
I wanted to move there.
The highlight of Friendship Bread — and a hallmark of Gee’s talent — is that this novel is both big and small in scope, providing us a glimpse of the interior lives of so many characters without overwhelming us. We know how I feel about Too Many Characters-itis and, as a new person was introduced every few chapters, I started to squirm. But I can honestly say I felt invested in the lives of everyone Gee spotlights, even the Avalonians on whom we focused for just a few paragraphs. These people felt real and tangible and interesting, and I wanted to get to know them all. And I felt like I did.
Brimming with recipes, insight and a heartwarming ending, Friendship Bread was a surprise of a read that had me up late in a thunderstorm to finish. Though I know some have deemed the trope of friendship bread bring a town together “far-fetched,” I had no trouble just going with it. Sometimes? Sometimes, you just want to feel happy. And good. And this novel did just that for me.
4.5 out of 5!