The smell of freshly baked bread, a hint of cinnamon, the kindness of strangers … how can you resist Darien Gee’sÂ Friendship Bread, a novel set in the fictional small town of Avalon, Illinois. The eponymous Friendship Bread is normally delivered with a bag of suspicious-looking starter culture, sourdough in a ziploc, that with some care and attention will, in time, yield two loaves of bread and three bags of starter to pass out to friends. Just like a chain letter, the bags of starter can be fun, but all too soon can lead to your friends and neighbours shunning you and all manner of awkward encounters. Still, for three women in Avalon, the bread starts another reaction – becoming the hub of a network of love, support, reconciliation, and – yes, friendship – that eventually encompasses the whole town.
Julia is recovering from the loss of her son Josh, in a terrible accident. She has pushed away family, friends and work in her reluctance to move on. Even her husband, Mark, is unable to penetrate her defences. For Julia, an anonymous present of Friendship Bread and starter is a little nudge towards opening up, delivered at just the right time. Madeline has opened a tea-shop in Avalon to try and bury her regrets in a new town. Hannah, one-time professional cellist, who has moved to Avalon from Chicago at her husband’s insistence, is slowly realising that her marriage doesn’t seem to be working out with her husband still resident in Chicago. The three women meet one afternoon in Madeline’s tea shop and over tea and Friendship Bread starter, they form strong bonds that slowly heal each other’s wounds. There are some touching moments and some laugh-out-loud funny moments, such as when the local reporter calculates that in just over 2 months there would be over 4,000 bags of starter culture in the town.
The Amish Friendship Bread story is not new, while it may have nothing to do with the Amish, but the idea of a sweet yeasty sourdough loaf delivered in times of need, and the starter to make and share, is heartwarming. The message of a living symbol of friendship (the starter culture) with its reminders to take a little action each day, is a slow-time focus on friendship that is welcome if you’re lost in the online (or even offline) world. Darien Gee’s story is simple, unsurprising, but very very satisfying – kind of like Friendship Bread itself. And thankfully, Darien has included the recipe to make your own starter in the back of the book.
I’ll let you know if the bread turns out as delicious as she says – because now I have my own starter culture sitting in my kitchen. Watch out friends and family, sourdough culture is coming your way!