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A Novel

Written by Darien GeeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Darien Gee



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On Sale: April 05, 2011
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-345-52536-9
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In the tradition of Kate Jacobs and Lolly Winston comes a deeply felt, utterly charming novel of three newfound friends and the unexpected gift that will change their lives.
 
In the quiet community of Avalon, Illinois, Julia Evarts wonders how to move on with her life. Though her husband and five-year-old daughter give her an abundance of love, Julia still reels from a tragedy that has left her estranged from the sister who was once her best friend. Meanwhile, across town, widow Madeleine Davis takes great pleasure in serving up delectable treats and cozy comforts at her tea salon—now, if only she had some customers to enjoy them. And famed concert cellist and recent Avalon transplant Hannah de Brisay finds herself at a crossroads when her career and marriage come to abrupt ends. The three strangers forge a friendship at Madeleine’s Tea Shop, and soon their camaraderie extends to everyone in Avalon in the guise of a unique and wonderful gift. But even as Julia becomes ever closer to her new friends, she realizes the profound necessity of confronting the painful past she shares with her sister.
 
Life and loss, friendship and community, food and family: Friendship Bread tells a spirited, remarkably moving tale about the triumph of hope.
 
Look for special features inside. Join the Circle for author chats and more.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

I hope you enjoy it.

Julia Evarts looks up from the paper in her hand and studies the gallon-size Ziploc bag. Inside is a substance that reminds her of drywall compound, except it's much pastier and filled with tiny air bubbles. It would have gone straight into the trash had Gracie not been standing beside her, eyes wide with curiosity.

"Mama, can I try one?" Gracie asks. She holds up a china plate decorated with pansies and roses. Several slices of what looks like banana bread are fanned out on the plate and covered with plastic wrap. Gracie was the first to spot it when they pulled up to the house--the plate, the Ziploc, and the accompanying instructions for "Amish Friendship Bread" sitting on their front porch. There was no card, only a yellow sticky note with the five words written in shaky cursive.

For a moment Julia was confused--had the weekly meals started up again? Not that she'd mind having a casserole to serve for dinner tonight, but this? This smelled suspiciously like a chain letter, with the added headache of having to bake something. Julia can't remember the last time she'd baked something.

Gracie tears off the plastic wrap before Julia can stop her. "This looks good!"

Julia has to admit that it does look good. It's coming up on 3:00 p.m., time for an afternoon snack anyway, and as usual she hasn't thought this far ahead. She has no idea how other mothers do it, or how she managed to pull it off before.

"Gracie, hold on. Let's get inside first." Julia unlocks the front door and ushers her five-year-old daughter inside.

She puts their things on the kitchen island and then opens the fridge. It's pretty bare because Julia has forgotten to go grocery shopping, and there's no milk. She doesn't want to have to go out again, so she pours Gracie a glass of water from the tap and heats up the remains of this morning's coffee for herself.

"Now?" Gracie is practically bouncing in place.

They eat straight off the plate, using their fingers. It's not banana bread or like anything Julia's ever tasted before. It's moist and sweet with a hint of cinnamon. It hits the spot, as unexpected kindness always does, and soon there is only one slice left.

"I bet Daddy would like it," Gracie says. Her fingers have crumbs on them, and she licks each one.

Julia bets he would, too. Mark has a sweet tooth, even though he's been on a bit of a health kick lately. She tucks a stray strand of Gracie's mousy brown hair behind her ear, so different from Julia's flyaway strawberry-blond curls. "We'll put it aside for him," Julia says, even though she was hoping to have the last piece for herself. She reaches for the used plastic wrap but Gracie gets to it first.

Julia watches as Gracie tries to extricate the wrap from itself. She waits for the tantrum, for the meltdown that sometimes happens at this time of day, but Gracie manages to pull the plastic wrap apart and lay it over the single slice of bread, carefully tucking it under the scalloped edges of the plate.

"I did it!" Gracie looks at her handiwork, proud. "So now what?"

Julia notices a blue streak of dried paint on the back of Gracie's hand and gives it a rub. "What do you mean, now what?"

Gracie holds up the note and the instructions. "Is this a recipe? It looks like a recipe. Are we supposed to do something? I can mix. I'm great at mixing!" The sugar from the bread has clearly entered Gracie's bloodstream.

Julia turns to look at the Ziploc bag slouching on the counter. She has figured out that it's basically fermenting batter, but the mere thought of baking and what it entails exhausts her. "Yes, you are great at mixing, Gracie," Julia concedes. "It's just that . . . well, someone gave this to us to be nice. They don't expect us to actually do it. I'm not sure I even have the ingredients."

"We could buy them."

Julia gives her daughter a small smile. "I don't think so, Gracie girl." Her voice is apologetic but firm. "Would you like to watch a little television while I get dinner ready?"

Gracie slides off the stool. "I think Clifford is on," she tells Julia, then runs off.

The microwave dings. It's a reminder ding, a clever feature the manufacturer came up with. Or maybe all microwaves have reminder dings now--Julia has no idea. Their previous microwave caught fire when she placed a box of dry macaroni and cheese inside and set the cook time for an hour. Black smoke billowed out and the fire alarm shrieked. Gracie was barely a month old. She was startled but didn't cry, even when Julia broke down and Mark frantically ran about, fire extinguisher in hand as he tried to air out the house.

The microwave dings again. Julia opens the door and sees her cup of coffee. She takes a sip and finds that it's lukewarm and stale. She puts it back in for another minute then stares at the last piece of bread, wondering if Mark will care if she eats it.

He probably won't. He's deferred to her for the past five years, too tired to argue, too tired to try. She can't say she blames him. She doesn't know what to do to make things better, either.

Her coffee is now hot and she pulls back the plastic wrap to finish off the last piece. The evidence is still between her fingers when Gracie walks in holding a piece of pink construction paper.

Her daughter looks shocked, as if Julia has just committed a cardinal sin. "Mama! That was for Daddy!"

Julia feels guilty, and then defensive, but it's pointless either way. First, Gracie is five. She has the clear advantage in this situation, as Julia can't bear to see her daughter distraught. Second, Gracie was born after everything happened. She doesn't know a life other than the one she's living now, where the worst thing that can happen is Julia eating the last piece of Amish Friendship Bread.

Julia tries for an apology. "I'm sorry, Gracie. I was just really hungry."

"But I wanted Daddy to try it." Gracie is near tears.

"Well, we could make him a smoothie or maybe some fruit salad . . ." She has none of these ingredients but offers it up anyway.

"No, I know he'd like this best. I even made a card for him." Gracie holds up the paper in her hand. On it she's laboriously copied the five words from the yellow sticky note.

I hope you enjoy it.

Julia feels a lump in her throat. Her daughter's neat, careful handwriting looks like that of an eight-year-old. Julia knows this because that's how long it took for Josh, a leftie, to master printing. His teacher had suspected developmental dyslexia, and Julia had to fight to keep him out of special ed, not wanting him to be labeled for life. In the end, she had been right. While Josh's handwriting would never be called a thing of beauty--his letters were always sloped, almost kissing the line--he had ended up one of the brightest kids in his class.

As Julia gazes at Gracie's tear-stained face, she knows there's only one solution. She reaches for the instructions for Amish Friendship Bread and sticks it on the refrigerator with a magnet. She steps back, resigned, then puts the Ziploc bag safely to one side as she pulls her daughter into her arms for a tight hug.

"Hold on to your note, Gracie. We'll be baking in ten days."



Mark doesn't want to go home.

That's not entirely true, actually. He wants to go home, but he doesn't want to get into another fight with Julia or hear about what an awful day she's had. Sometimes she'll just look at him in stony silence, indifferent to his questions, a wall.

But it's the sighs that get to him the most. He'll take silence over sighs any day. The sun can be shining, the house spic-and-span (seeing how he stays up late every night cleaning it), Gracie healthy and full of joy, and still it's not enough.

He sits in his car in the parking lot, unsure of what to do. He doubts Julia has come up with a game plan for dinner. She'll probably ask him to get some takeout or heat up leftovers while she goes into the bedroom for a rest.

A rest from what? Gracie's in kindergarten at the Montessori school, gone for a seven-hour stretch of time. Julia doesn't work anymore, doesn't have to do anything. She picks up Gracie from school and that's pretty much it. Mark does everything else, filling in the gaps wherever he can.

There's a rap on his window and he jumps. The smiling face of Vivian McNeilly is looking at him. Vivian is an interior designer with Gunther & Evarts Architects, in charge of all their high-end commercial and residential projects. She motions for him to lower his window.

Mark presses the button but nothing happens. It takes him a second to realize that the engine's not on. He fumbles for his keys and turns the ignition, feeling like an idiot when the window finally descends with a hum.

"Am I interrupting anything?" Vivian is all smiles. She has a lilting voice, something Mark has always noticed and appreciated for its ability to charm a client. "You look like you're deep in thought."

"What? No. I'm just debating whether or not to go to the gym." What a dumb thing to say, especially since he already worked out before going to the office this morning. Mark wishes he could take it back.

But Vivian nods solemnly as if this is the most intriguing thing she's heard all day. She's worked for them for a year and he's never felt uncomfortable around her, but suddenly he's picking up a vibe he hasn't felt in months.

Years.

"Where do you work out? I ask because I usually run through Avalon Park after work, but I was thinking about picking up a gym membership somewhere." She leans forward, just a bit, and he catches a whiff of perfume.

Mark knows where this is going and that he should just nip it in the bud, but he finds himself contemplating Vivian instead. She makes it look effortless--the wavy auburn locks that fall just past her shoulders, her fitted suit and heels, the way she leans comfortably against the door of his car. She can't be a day over thirty but she holds herself like a woman who's seen the world. She's bright and single, much too young to be living in a small town like Avalon. Before he can stop himself, Mark says, "I go to a gym in Freeport. Fitness Lifestyles. It's a really great facility--they've got an indoor pool and everything."

Why is he telling her this?

"That sounds great," Vivian says. She is beaming and Mark's not sure what just happened. "So I'll follow you there? I have my running gear with me. Maybe we could grab a quick workout after I sign up?"

He's in dangerous waters. Sink or swim.

"Maybe some other time," he says, and offers a conciliatory smile. His palms are sweating as he grips the steering wheel. "See you tomorrow." He manages a wave before putting the car into drive and gunning it out of the parking lot.



Julia stands over the kitchen sink, her hands soapy as she washes each dish and puts it onto the wooden rack to dry. Mark is getting Gracie ready for bed.

This time, the evening time, is the only time Julia feels sane. Safe. She can finally breathe, can finally let herself exhale without fear that the ax is going to fall and destroy what's left of her life. Whatever has happened during the day is over, gone and done with. Her husband is here, her daughter is here. They are all in the same house, under the same roof. Even if they pass each other silently in the hallway, at least they are together.

All that's left to do is finish washing the dishes, then she'll wipe down the table, shower, and crawl into bed. She won't bother with a book or television, as Mark likes to do, but fall straight into a dreamless sleep, her mind and heart finally at rest.

Julia reaches for the next dish. The unfamiliar weight in her hand makes her look down and she sees that it's the scalloped plate that was left on their porch, a few crumbs still on it. She takes a moment to admire the red roses, the pale blue and violet pansies dotting the dish. When she and Mark had married, they were poor and young. It seemed like a waste to register for china, an extravagance. Plus, they had joked, the children would probably break it. They rolled their eyes, imagining the messes to be made by their future progeny. Already Mark and Julia were making plans for these children, letting their decisions revolve around these little beings that had yet to be conceived.

"Can we register for Tupperware?" Mark had asked, and Julia had only giggled.

Julia runs a soapy hand over the smooth plate, wistful and sad for what could have been. When she turns the plate over in her hand, she sees a printed stamp on the back side.

Fine Bone China Shelley England

But that's not what makes her suck in her breath, almost drop the plate into the water. There's a pattern number, and then the name of the pattern right above it.

Rose . . . Pansy . . .

And then the last one, on a line of its own.

Forget-Me-Not.



CHAPTER 2

"Heads, it's a girl. Tails, it's a boy." A shiny quarter sails through the sky and Livvy catches it with a laugh. She gives her coworker a nudge. "Come on. Guess!"

Edie takes a bite of her sandwich. "While I appreciate your highly scientific method for determining the sex of my unborn child, I think I'll pass. Besides, I don't know for sure that I'm even pregnant. I'm just late."

"Edie, come on! I don't know what you're waiting for."

Edie's blue eyes sparkle behind a pair of rectangular glasses. "My period, maybe?"

Livvy slaps the quarter onto the table. "Heads. You're having a girl." She reaches for her own lunch, a cold pasta salad tossed in a low-fat Italian dressing. She can't understand Edie's nonchalance about this. If Livvy were late, she'd be in the drugstore buying every pregnancy kit available to man. Or, in this case, woman.

She hasn't told anyone that she and Tom have started trying, just in case it doesn't happen. Livvy's thirty-seven, not exactly over the hill, but Tom is convinced that the longer they wait, the greater the chance that something could go wrong. He knows two people who know other people who have children with Down syndrome. Livvy feels her indignation rise. You can't really control these things, and even though she's not a religious person she believes all things happen for a reason. Even the unthinkable, which she's witnessed firsthand. She just nods her head when Tom suggests forgoing birth control to "see what happens."


From the Hardcover edition.
Darien Gee|Author Q&A

About Darien Gee

Darien Gee - Friendship Bread
Darien Gee lives in Hawaii with her husband and their three children. She is also the author of Friendship Bread.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Darien Gee

Random House: Give us a taste of Friendship Bread and some of the characters you created to tell this story. Who was your favorite, who did you connect with the most?

Darien Gee: I have a tenderness for the scenes where Julia Evarts can’t get out of bed or where her husband, Mark, is fumbling with a broken token of love. It makes my heart ache when I see Julia’s sister, Livvy, going about her life so earnestly but also with so much fragility that I’m worried she might break. I’m grateful that Madeline Davis, owner of the tea salon, gives cellist Hannah Wang de Brisay a book that changes her life. Edie Gallagher sometimes shouldn’t speak her mind, but I’m glad (most of the time) that she does. I’m cheering for Connie Colls, from the Avalon Wash and Dry, that she might find her way in the world. I had a lot of fun writing the anecdotal characters, the people from the town of Avalon whose lives were touched by the bread, and I do have to say that Gloria, the psychic, makes me laugh, and I’m charmed by Double A, the biker who bakes. This my round- about, duck-the-question way of saying that, as a mother and author, I don’t play favorites—I love them all.

RH: What was your inspiration for the book?

DG: In the spring of 2009 my then eight-year-old daughter brought home a Ziploc bag of Amish Friendship Bread starter. My initial re- sponse had been a shake of the head—the starter looked so unappe- tizing that I couldn’t see how it would be worth doing. But as I read through the instructions, I became intrigued, and by the time I tasted the bread, I was hooked. As I was finishing the last piece, I saw a woman in my mind who was reluctantly holding up a bag of the starter, regarding it with a frown. I didn’t know where she had gotten the starter but one thing was clear—she was enveloped in sadness, stuck in the day-to-day motions that mimicked life when in fact she hadn’t felt alive in years. I knew right then that I wanted to find out more, and I started writing that night.

RH: What is Amish Friendship Bread? Is it really Amish?

DG: Amish Friendship Bread is a cinnamon-sugar cake-like bread made from a sourdough starter that’s shared and passed along from friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor, co-worker to co-worker. The first documented appearance of Amish Friendship Bread was in the early 1990s when a Girl Scout troop sent a letter almost identical to the one that circulates today. To my knowledge no one has been able to definitively determine if it originated from the Amish (one of the key ingredients is a box of instant pudding, so I’ll let you be the judge). Amish Friendship Bread is less about the actual recipe and more about sharing and community, key principles often associated with the Amish, which is why I think it bears that name.

RH: Tell us about the “Six Degrees of Friendship Bread.”

DG: Whenever people tell me they’ve never heard of Amish Friend- ship Bread, my response is always, “I bet I can find someone within six degrees of separation [the concept that everyone is six steps away from any other person] who has received the starter or baked the bread.” And I always do.

RH: Some people call Amish Friendship Bread a culinary or viral chain letter. Can you tell us about that?

DG: When you receive a bag of starter, the instructions tell you how to care for the starter and then, on Day Ten, divide it and give three bags to three friends, saving one for yourself. Theoretically, if everyone you gave it to did the same thing, after five rounds there would be 1,024 bags of starter floating around out there. After ten rounds, there would be 1,048,576 bags. And after twenty rounds, 1,099,511,627,776 bags (yes, that’s over one trillion). It’s exponential growth—and on top of that, each bag of starter makes two loaves of bread! Of course not everyone chooses to bake or pass on the starter, but imagine what it would be like if everyone did. And while it is like a chain letter, the good news is that even though the instruc- tions tell you to pass it on, there’s no threat or negative consequence if you don’t.

RH: As a mother of three children, was it difficult to write about Julia’s relationship with her son?

DG: When I first started writing the novel, I didn’t know about Josh. When the story started to unfold, I felt a shock and sadness as if I were hearing the news from a friend—I experienced a kind of disbe- lief, a how-could-this-happen sort of response. I did think about my kids during this time, but as a writer I had to keep writing and follow the story to the end because I wanted to know if Julia would be okay.
RH: Do you think a single act, such as baking for a loved one, can really have the kind of ripple effect you write about in the novel? Is it possible for one person to be able to bring together an entire commu- nity like Julia does?

DG: Absolutely. Granted, I am of the “anything is possible” mindset, but I think history has shown that a single person can make a big dif- ference. In the case of Julia, it was never her intention to play the role she did. She just did something that felt good and wanted to share it, as did Madeline and Hannah, and so on and so forth.

RH: Do you still bake friendship bread? What are some of your fa- vorite recipes?

DG: I bake Amish Friendship Bread once or twice a month. I’m always experimenting with new ways to use the starter in recipes, and I have virtual kitchen assistants who help me test and tweak recipes through my website, the Friendship Bread Kitchen (www .friendshipbreadkitchen.com). There are many sweet bread variations (lemon poppyseed, zucchini chocolate chip, butterscotch, and apple spice to name a few), and you can make biscuits and pancakes, too. The cranberry-walnut-flax is one of my favorite recipes for muffins, and we just came up with an amazing recipe for a chocolate cherry al- mond Amish Friendship Bread biscotti. But the basic recipe that comes with the starter is the simplest and the best.

RH: How do you find the time to write as a mom of three young children whom you homeschool?

DG: I write whenever I can, as often as I can, but I never force it un- less I’m on deadline. I’ve discovered that I’m a better writer because I’m a busy parent—I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. When I was single with no kids, I took a whole year off to write, and in the end, even with an agent agreement in hand, I couldn’t cross the finish line. My husband, Darrin, is a big reason I’m able to pull it all off. He knows how important writing is to me, and he does everything he can to support me by being with the kids when he’s not working or letting me sleep in when I’ve been writing all night.

RH: What’s next?

DG: My next novel is also set in the town of Avalon, Illinois.  I believe that scrapbooking and other forms of memory keeping play an im- portant role in keeping special moments alive in us, and the charac- ters in this new novel discover this for themselves as they navigate through the mundane and more challenging aspects of their lives. The heart of the novel is about friendship, of course, but also about how we honor and celebrate the memories and people who’ve made a dif- ference in our lives. I had a lot of fun writing this book because it helped me reconnect with my creative, crafty side, and also gave me an excuse to start putting some of my own family albums together. Readers will have a chance to get to know some of the more periph- eral characters from Friendship Bread while meeting new ones, too.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Amish Friendship Bread is the sweet thread that weaves itself throughout the whole story. What are your experiences with the bag of starter, ten-day fermenting process, and the recipes you used to bake the bread?

2. Julia is clearly suffering from depression. What is the cause of her depression and whom does she blame? In what ways does her husband enable her to continue with her destructive emotional pat- tern? How does this leave him vulnerable?

3. Hannah is a concert cellist who is no longer able to perform due to a back injury and is now living in Avalon. How did she end up moving to Avalon and why does she feel so alone and unhappy? How does she discover a purpose for living in her new life in Avalon?

4. Livvy carries deep pain and guilt that leaks into all aspects of her life. What happened in her past that causes her so much grief? How does that tragedy affect her relationships, self-esteem, and everyday decisions?

5. Throughout the book, we meet many unique and colorful resi- dents of Avalon. What is the common theme of these characters, and of those people, who was your favorite and why?

6. Edie, a very ambitious reporter/writer who follows her boy- friend, Dr. Richard, to the small town of Avalon, is looking for her big break with a story that will get her noticed. What happens that could change her ambitious career plans?

7. Madeline, who owns the teashop and seems like a fairy god- mother, reveals that she also has regrets in her life. What are her re- grets? How is she trying to redeem herself and make things right? Does this confession change your perception of Madeline? Explain.

8. Hannah, Julia, and Mark all end up in Chicago at the same time. How is this trip a defining moment for each of them?

9. Edie writes an article for the local newspaper about the origin of Amish Friendship Bread in Avalon, singling out one character as the person who started passing around the batter. How does her article affect that person and what kind of chain reaction does it trigger? Does Edie ever discover the real story behind the Amish Friendship Bread?

10. After many days of torrential rains, the local river threatens to flood its banks and although Avalon is spared, the neighboring town of Barrett is not so lucky with many families displaced. How does the gesture to help the needy families of Barrett snowball and serve to unite the residents of Avalon as well?

11. Many relationships were forged, reinforced, and restored throughout the story. How did friendship bread play a part in the mending of those relationships?

12. How do the prologue and the epilogue of Friendship Bread bring the story full circle?

Praise

Praise

“With heart and soul, Darien Gee has crafted a charming story of love, friendship, tragedy, and the surprising ways healing weaves its way through a small town.”—Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
 
“Deliciously entertaining! You’ll root all the way as these characters stumble toward forgiveness, understanding, and, ultimately, celebration. Friendship Bread is a perfect book club selection.”—Kate Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Friday Night Knitting Club
 
“As comforting, warm, and delicious as a slice of freshly baked friendship bread.”—Jane Green, New York Times bestselling author of Promises to Keep
 
“Darien Gee’s virtuoso storytelling kept me turning pages—and wishing I lived in Avalon!”—Nancy Thayer, New York Times bestselling author of Heat Wave
 
“A vivid, tender portrait of friends, a window onto the intricacies of friendship itself.”—Luanne Rice, New York Times bestselling author of The Silver Boat

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