Sourdough is Robin Sloan’s second novel, but my first read of his. Before finishing this one, I’d already ordered his first, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Having just returned from my first trip to San Francisco, I was immediately charmed by the setting of Sourdough which is strictly in the Bay Area.
Lois, the main character, is a geeky computer type who works for a robotics company that intends to revolutionize commerce in a way that will likely make humans obsolete. Lois is well paid and unfulfilled. Her apartment is sparse, like her life, until she finds the best take-out food ever. Two brothers deliver to her a daily elixir of dishes with sourdough to die for. The brothers nickname her their “Number One Eater.” She relishes the title.
Then, as quickly as they came into her life, the brothers close up shop and leave the country because of immigration issues. In honor of her best customer status, they pass along their mysterious sourdough “starter” for safe keeping. Unbeknownst to me prior to reading this book, sourdough “starters,” a type of yeast different from the standard used in, say, regular white bread, can be fed, grown and reused for years and years. Lois’ newly inherited starter has a mysterious and not entirely pure history, and, as Lois comes to learn, a dark side.
Lois makes her first loaves of sourdough in her sterile kitchen but realizes for both the sake of quality and quantity, she’ll need something bigger. She constructs a non-code compliant brick oven in her backyard and buys her landlord’s silence through the promise of regular bread delivery. Deciding to expand her bread business, she signs on to be part of the enigmatic Marrow Fair, a new market that hopes to be the underground competitor to the Ferry Market, a long-established mecca of commerce right on the Bay. Intrigue ensues.
Reminiscent of Tom Robbins, Sloan is a master of language and turning phrases. Example: “My face burned hot, but through force of will, I cooled my gaze to absolute zero kelvin.” Similarly, he can make a fantastical story believable. He also takes the complex and reduces it to basic. In the end, Lois finds the answers she’s looking for through simplifying everything: robotic coding, bread making, relationships.
This is a delightful reprieve if you’re weary from the world at large. It reads quick and delivers wit and quirk with a touch of sentimentality. I look forward to reading Sloan’s other published novel and the ones that will hopefully ensue.
Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars