Book Review: By Bread Alone by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Stan Elliott and me at the prom in 1964

Stan Elliott and me at the prom in 1964

If you could have a second chance with your first love, would you take it?

This is the central question of Sarah-Kate Lynch’s By Bread Alone.  Shortly before I moved to Washington State to join the Address Confidentiality Program, I saw my first love again.  He asked me to marry him.  In 1969, I probably would have taken him up on his proposal.  In 1999, I realized I was lucky he hadn’t asked.

Although we dated for several years and went to two proms together, I discovered today that there is just one photo of us together.  Telling, eh?

 Poilane Bakery, Paris

Poilâne Bakery, Paris

Someone has been baking bread down here for nearly six hundred years.
First it was the monks. . .
for one hundred eighty-nine years it has been the Lapoine family.
Sarah-Kate LynchBy Bread Alone

In By Bread Alone, Esme MacDougall Stack was a late bloomer who fell in love and lust with a hunky baker while on vacation with her best friend Charlie Edmonds in the tiny village of Venolat in southwest France.  Louis Lapoine seduced her in the flour room of his uncle’s bakery while the sourdough was mixing.  Alas, he was a snake.  But, who hasn’t been charmed at least once by a snake?

After nineteen years of being flat and dull, once Louis added his starter to Esme in the hot salty flour store of the Venolat boulangerie, she rose. . .

Nothing could turn her back into the old colorless Esme. . .She had been Louis-ed. . .never going back. . .

All the things she had ever dreamed of someone saying to her, he said.  All the ways she had ever imagined being touched, he discovered.  It was so perfect.  So completely perfect.

Sourdough loaves being prepared for the oven

Sourdough loaves being prepared for the oven

I wait all day for this kiss.
– Sarah-Kate Lynch, By Bread Alone

Esme tearfully returned to Granny Mac’s loving arms in London.  Her career as a journalist sizzled despite betrayal by her subordinate and professional nemesis, Jemima Jones.  Esme married Hugo “Pog” Stack, who was a successful architect.  They had twins and were a power couple restoring a “crumbling Victorian terrace house” on All Souls Road in London’s fashionable Notting Hill until hit by a double tragedy.

Sourdough turkey club sandwich by Safeway

Sourdough turkey club sandwich by Safeway

It was just one of those terrible things that happens;
that you think will happen to someone else but
in this case it happened to us.
– Sarah-Kate Lynch, By Bread Alone

Consumed with grief, the couple retreated to the Suffolk seaside and bought the six-story House in the Clouds with their son Rory, Granny Mac, Pog’s father Henry, and their dog Brown.  Sourdough bread was a constant in their lives.  Granny Mac and Henry had a contentious relationship:

If I wanted to live with another cranky old bastard, I’d send Esme out to find me a husband.

House in the Clouds, Thorpeness

House in the Clouds, Thorpeness on the Suffolk seaside in England.  It has 78 internal stairs.

She had not been getting up at sparrow’s fart all these years
[to bake sourdough bread]
just to cling to the pathetic remains of her long-lost love.
– Sarah-Kate Lynch, By Bread Alone

By Bread Alone is a vivid tapestry of complex relationships woven together with love, betrayal, grief, denial, and regrets.  Drowning in grief and expectations to be “the feel-good girl,” Esme is tempted to escape into an affair with Louis:

. . .when things are tough I just remember that feeling of being in love with him and it was such a wonderful feeling.  So strong and powerful and all-consuming.  Delicious, really.  And I wonder what it would be like to feel like that again.

Wherever Louis wanted to take her, Esme realized, she would go.  Whatever he wanted her to do, she would do it.  Never mind Pog.  Never mind Rory.  Never mind The Blind Goat and the father-in-law and the House in the Clouds.  This was it.  This was her destiny.  Her escape.  He was the one. . .

I don’t think that you shagging Louis was the best idea Granny Mac ever had. . .the little slimeball did seem to clear your pipes on the. . .Teddy front. . .it was you who turned Louis into the handsome prince.

Sourdough loaves at the Poilâne Baker in Paris

Signature sourdough loaves at the Poilâne Bakery in Paris

 Nobody can save anybody else.
– Sarah-Kate Lynch, By Bread Alone

Yet, when we run away, we often discount what we have at home:

They may not have had the romance of the century, she and Pog, but she had never doubted for a moment how much he adored her.  She could see it now in his eyes. . .

“I know you think you’re plain old flour and water, Es,” [Pog] said, “and Louis as your starter, but that’s not true, it’s never been true.  We’re the flour and water and you’re our starter.

Morag “Granny Mac” MacDougall is an eccentric thrice-widowed matron who loves Rod Stewart.  She is Esme’s “crotchety old” guardian angel and anchor:

You truly think you’re the first person to suffer a loss so enormous you can’t get your head out of the sand to confront it?  You think no one else has ever tried to escape the reality of their life with the fantasy of another?  It’s nothing new.  It’s all been done before. . .

I thought that as long as I had Granny Mac everything would be all right.  That was all that kept me going. . .I never let myself contemplate a life without her. . .Granny Mac. . .was my life support. . .my life raft, keeping me afloat. . .I just couldn’t let her go. . .

There’s no blueprint for surviving the loss of your child. . .You bloody well grasp on to whatever you can to stop yourself from drowning.

Sarah-Kate Lynch at the Taj Mahal

Sarah-Kate Lynch at the Taj Mahal

 I can have a new kind of happiness.
– Sarah-Kate Lynch, By Bread Alone

I recommend By Bread Alone highly because it is a great story, and it is also has tremendous therapeutic potential.  A popular therapeutic exercise is to write our own script.  Nice idea, but what if you suck at fiction?  I do.

Ms. Lynch starts writing her books with the ending.  She loves to travel and sets her stories in places she wants to visit.  Her research for By Bread Alone included visits to the House in the Clouds on the North Sea in England and the Poilâne Bakery in Paris.  She has a passion for food and relies on comic relief to weather life’s challenges:

My family is big on comic relief!  It definitely runs in our genes.  Every time there is a disaster or drama in the Lynch clan, we all see the humor in it. . .a coping mechanism. . .we tend to laugh our way out of the mire.  When I wrote By Bread Alone, my husband and I were dealing with the aftermath of a fairly devastating personal tragedy but it didn’t stop us from laughing.

She allows her characters to emerge and speak to her:

I see the whole thing in my head playing out like a movie.

Sarah-Kate Lynch in her Oscar gown panning for gold

Sarah-Kate Lynch in her Oscar gown panning for gold

Invest in yourself!
– Sarah-Kate Lynch

These are all the ingredients of great therapy ~ especially for those of us who have wicked PTSD.  The passions in our life ~ people and activities ~ serve as anchors which help us regain control over our destiny.

Related posts and links:

Sarah-Kate Lynch

Book Review:  Blessed Are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch, 6/18/14

Kate’s Couch:  PTSD Therapy


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