After I posted my favorite books that I read in 2018, I felt like I had missed one: Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I really enjoyed this book. The story is so odd and the narrative voice offbeat and clever in a way that does not come off as overly ironic or affected. And it’s about sourdough bread. 🍞 🥖
In the novel, Lois Clary is living the life of a workaholic cog at a tech company in San Francisco and questioning why exactly she moved there from Michigan in the first place. Because of her long days, she does not have much time for a hobby or any personal relationships. And she’s getting sick. Her “closest friends” are the brothers who run a food stall that serves a spicy soup and sourdough bread that gives Lois a nearly religious experience. When the brothers suddenly close their shop, they gift Lois a bit of their sourdough starter. Nurturing the starter and making sourdough from it becomes a quickly rewarding hobby for Lois, and the starter seems to have a magical life of its own. As her relationship with the starter and the little microbes themselves flourish, so does Lois, taking her on an adventure into the cutting edge, underground food world of San Francisco.
Sourdough is a very silly novel, but silly in such a delightful, thoughtful way. I enjoyed the narrative voice, especially in self-reflexive moments such as:
“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”
I adored how the descriptions of the sourdough starter grew as the persona of the starter did. The starter sort of “sings” after Lois feeds it, and that starts her suspicions that it is unusual. It is also high maintenance and has to be fed and played music. Lois find that it has many quirks:
“I realized suddenly that my apartment reeked of bananas. I followed the scent to the kitchen, where the Clement Street starter had more than doubled in volume and was surging out of the crock, puffy tendrils oozing down the green ceramic. I heard a crispy, crackling pock-pock-pock; the starter was not merely bubbling but frothing. It is only barely anthropomorphization to say it looked happy.”
The relationship with the starter and the bread it produces have slight magical realist elements that reminded me subtly of Like Water for Chocolate.
Other delightful elements of the story include Lois attending a club of other women named Lois and getting to know the women a bit, and her reflections on what amounts to a pretty poor diet. My two major complaints about the book are that the ending left me wanting a bit more (not in a good way), and that the depiction of the brothers, Beoreg and Chaiman, made me a little uneasy as it seemed to verge on some stereotypes. I think Sloan mostly skirts this by making the ethic background of the brothers kind of nondescript, but it was nearly problematic.
At any rate, I found this book whimsical, delightful, and very odd and I kept thinking about it long after I read it. I’ve never made sourdough or interacted with a starter, so for all I know they could all be magic. It makes me want to try it out.