Sourdough // by Robin Sloan

//published 2017//

A few years ago I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstorewhich I throughout enjoyed, and which totally held up to a reread as well.  Its cast of – for lack of a better work – quirky characters, the almost unbalanced feeling of not being completely positive if the story is set in current times or somewhat in the future (is the tech really good enough for this already??  … Maybe??), and the gently thought-provoking way of probing into that tech (is this actually a good thing or…???) were all reasons that I enjoyed the journey of that story, and I’m pleased to report that all of those reasons exist in Sourdough as well.

The main character/narrator of Sourdough is Lois, who is a software engineer for a robotics company in San Francisco.  She likes her work (she assumes) but it is somewhat all-consuming, mainly because she doesn’t have a lot else to do with her time.  She’s a transplant from Michigan and hasn’t made a lot of friends, beyond her colleagues, in her new city.  One day, when she gets home from work, there is a flyer on her door for a soup & sandwich shop that delivers.  She orders a meal from them and loves it.  Soon, she’s a regular there.  The restaurant isn’t really a restaurant since its actually just a pair of brothers cooking in their own kitchen – one brother cooks, the other delivers.  In a weird way, they become Lois’s friends as she calls them on the phone and chats with them when the deliver her dinner.  And so, she’s devastated when they leave San Francisco.  On their way out, they leave Lois with their special sourdough starter, special instructions for feeding and caring for it, and one of the brother’s email addresses so she can write to him if she has any questions.

Soon, Lois becomes absorbed in caring for the starter (it is alive, after all) and then trying to bake her own bread with it.  And that’s when things start to get a little… odd.

This book is a little hard to explain, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It flirts with the idea of scifi… maybe it IS scifi… or maybe there really is a secret farmers’ market in an underground bunker off the coast of California where people are making food using weird science??  Sloan never really lets you know and it honestly works.  I really liked Lois a lot, and even if the whole situation got a little crazy, it was still a lot of fun.  I think part of the reason this one works is because the chapters are short and snappy, Lois is likable, and the whole thing feels mostly plausible – I never found myself going, “Well that would never happen” at any particular junction, but at one point we’re having a conversation about cannibalistic sourdough starters I’m thinking, “How in the WORLD did I get here?!”  It’s fantastic.

If you enjoyed Penumbra, or if you like lite scifi, you’ll probably enjoy this one.  It was an easy 4* read for me, and I’m keeping an eye out for what Sloan does next.

In the meantime, I may need to learn how to make sourdough bread…