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February 19, 2024

Review in Haiku: By Bread Alone

By Katrina Stonoff

When baker Esme
stops making sourdough bread,
something must be wrong.

By Bread Alone, by Sarah-Kate Lynch, is a delightful story, told in the breezy style of Chick Lit but dealing with much more substantial issues than shoes and boyfriends.

Main character Esme MacDougall bakes bread every day: sourdough from starter that has been maintained for 200-plus years. Her life began at 19, when she learned to bake bread from a French artisan, and bread-making is the rhythm by which it has run for the intervening 15 years.

Or it was -- until something happened a month ago. Or maybe two years ago.

Chapter 1 opens with a hysterical scene in which Esme drops a quince, which rolls down several flights of stairs and lands at the perfectly polished brogues of her disapproving father-in-law. The scene ends when the dog (one of a menagerie of misfit animals) urinates on said shoes (and he isn't the last animal to hit Papa's footwear).

Gradually you learn Esme hasn't made bread in weeks, though the specific reason why isn't directly stated for many, many (many!) pages.

Elements of By Bread Alone are brilliant: the sourdough metaphor, the six-story House in the Clouds (each person in the extended family has his own floor), the delightful, quirky characters themselves. Some scenes sizzle and spark (i.e. the scenes in the boulangerie), and the language in spots is lyrical enough to launch me into operatic tenor (and I sing soprano).

It was the perfect book to read while recuperating: light enough to be fun, charming enough to be entertaining, but still dealing with real issues. All around, a good read.

But it could have been a great book. It flops on the simplest of skills: things a good critique group would have caught early.

First of all, one of my pet peeves is when a book follows one character closely (Limited POV), and there is an overriding event that has affected that character's life in a before/after kind of way, but the author tiptoes around the event itself, withholding from the reader information which is omnipresent in the POV character's life and mind.

Come on, you guys! If we're in a character's mind, and she's always thinking about something...you have to tell us what it is! Otherwise, instead of living that character's life, caring deeply for her, we feel resentment for the looming visage of the author with a fishing pole and reel saying, "No, not yet! Hang on...soon, but not yet!"

I think authors mistakenly believe it builds suspense, but in me it only builds annoyance. Can you tell?

Even worse, I saw the elephant in the room in Chapter 1. I had no doubt whatsoever what was happening, but I had to suffer through many, many chapters of the author's clumsy attempts at illusion, listening the whole time to her say, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Second, there are a number of mistakes beginning writers make. Head-hopping, for instance (changing POV characters in the middle of a scene, sometimes multiple times). At one point (Chapter 12), I was annoyed that I started writing "POV" in the margin every time she switched, as I would if I were writing a critique: five times in six pages, and I only marked the most egregious examples.

Then I marked the phrase "from the word go" as "clich?."

Because the problem is, when mistakes are SO prevalent that I switch into editor mode, then I notice all sorts of things. And then I'm even annoyed that Lynch says the kitchen "rang" with the "smell" of sourdough because those are two different senses (and even worse, she actually said "was ringing," rather than "rang," which is also passive).

Oh, I know: these are such minor points, and I'm just being nitpicky. But they're evidential of a bigger problem: I wasn't lost in the story, carried along by the wave.

By Bread Alone is a good read. In fact, I recommend it.

But it could have been a great novel. The characters are brilliant (all of them, even the minor ones), and the plot just sparkles. How sad that this potentially luminous work was cheapened by inadequate revision.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-14
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