Robin Sloan creates a story of the intersection of capitalism, science, and magic in Sourdough. And there’s a little romance too. But certainly not in a traditional sense.
Lois is a computer programmer. When she decides to leave her comfortable Midwest life for a thriving start-up in San Francisco, she has no idea what life will bring. Sloan describes her corporate life as grueling, but idiosyncratic in a California way. People sleep at work. Their only nutritious intake is a drink called Slurry. And Lois falls deeply into this life, busy programming robotic arms.
Spending a rare evening at home, she receives a takeout menu. It’s the beginning of a new life. Who knew takeout could mean this much? She starts ordering spicy soup and sourdough from a pair of charming brothers. They’re not from California, but Lois can’t quite place their accent. Night after night she places the same order, speaking with each brother as one cooks and the other delivers.
Life changes for the brothers, and they leave San Francisco. Before they go, they give Lois the sourdough starter they’ve been using. It’s a temperamental, but rewarding, starter. You might even call it magical. And Lois’ life will never be the same.
I love sourdough bread, and Sloan creates a happy little homage to it. I used to keep a starter, so the details about feeding one and keeping it alive made me nostalgic. Some elements of the robotic arm programming process were less interesting, though.
Even so, this is a character-driven story and I related to Lois and her adventure. She could easily have thrown the starter down the drain. But, of course, then the book wouldn’t have its secondary character. Yes, I think the starter itself was a character.
In fact, I’ll venture that the book’s true romance was between Lois and her sourdough starter. She nurtures it, asks it to grow, pushes it even harder, and then asks forgiveness. Sounds like a relationship to me. It’s also where the aforementioned magic exists in the story.
Sloan spends plenty of time explaining how bacteria are living things, if not sentient beings. He strikes just balance of science and cookery.
I also enjoyed the characters in Lois’ life. They brought a true sense of the “spicy soup” of life that is San Francisco. It makes me want to schedule a long visit to the City by the Bay, just as Sloan’s previous book did.
For me, Sourdough was about love, ambition, discovery, and self-knowledge. But above all it’s about the unalterably human desire to innovate and experiment—even recklessly. I was captivated!