Publication date: September 5th 2017
September has already been a month of heavy (literally) reading. Namely, Ken Follett’s latest, which clocked in at a daunting 928 pages. It is one of those times when I have loved having an e-book because I have a tendency to fall asleep in bed while reading and a book like that could have broken my nose. It’s not just literal, though, it’s been a month of heavy reading based on somber subjects as well so it was not only a relief but an absolute delight to stumble into Robin Sloane’s newest novel, Sourdough. And yes, it is a novel that rises around bread…sorry, could not resist that one. Lois is a programmer for a young company in San Francisco that produces robotic arms with the aim to eliminate repetitive motion problems in factories and laboratories. Sadly, the work itself is repetitive—reviewing and creating lines and lines of code. She’s only in her early twenties but when she is able to go home from work she already feels as if
…I existed in a state of catatonic recovery, brain flaccid, cells gasping.
Things change for Lois when she finds a flyer for a soup delivery company. Prior to this she had moved from solid food to a product called Slurry that many of her colleagues at General Dexterity lived on, because who has time to buy food and prepare it? She orders and with her wonderful, spicy soup comes a slice of bread unlike any she has ever eaten before. It satiates her, gives her energy, but lets her relax and sleep when she needs to. She becomes obsessed until it is all she eats and then…? Then the men who make it decide to leave San Francisco. They are brothers—one makes the soup and bread and one delivers it. They are Mazg, a small ethnic group of unknown origin, but with a lot of interesting history. Because Lois is their Number One Eater, Beoreg (the baker) gifts her his sourdough starter which has been in their family for generations. Lois’s journey into the world of baking begins and Sourdough starts expanding into charming and unexpected places.
Just as delicious alchemy occurs in the best starters so too does Sloan make it happen in Sourdough. He surrounds Lois with characters who complement her and even if their role is small, they add to the overall flavor of the novel. There are the women who comprise the Lois Club—yes, a club of women named Lois, the various artisans at the market where Lois sells her bread, and, even though it is through email only, Beo, the man who gave her the starter. His messages to her are a window into the mysterious world of the Mazg and give her encouragement.
If every single slice of Sourdough’s plot doesn’t quite wrap up at the end, it’s all right. Sloan moves into the slightly mystical world of food artisans and so starter that responds to music and cheese with molds and fungi that conquer other microorganisms doesn’t seem odd. For those that treat their food with reverence it’s not surprising to read about the materials that make up food as having the same life force as human beings. For someone like me, it’s much needed whimsy after novels about racism, deprivation, and religious persecution. Like the bread itself, Sourdough is simple and satisfying.