BWW Review: SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan
"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."
~Lois Clary, SOURDOUGH
Fans of MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan will be enthralled by his latest novel, SOURDOUGH. which has been getting a lot of attention in literary circles and may be a 2018 contender during Award Season.
Fair Warning: Reading SOURDOUGH will make you HUNGRY. You may want to have a loaf of sourdough bread on hand!
Lois Clary is not a baker. She works at a robotics company in San Francisco, programming robot arms and helping build a brighter future so that humans have less work and more leisure time on their hands. Rather than think about food, she keeps Slurry on hand, a liquid substance that gives her all the nutrients she needs. One day after a particularly harrowing shift, she comes home to a menu where part of the language is in a script she's never seen before. She orders the Double Spicy Special and overnight, her life changes. She befriends the brothers, learns about "the food of the Mazg" and becomes their "Number One Eater." When their visa runs out, they leave her their sourdough starter. Lois doesn't know much about baking, but she learns all she can about how to care for and bake sourdough bread. Her starter works in mysterious ways, and soon she is baking bread for her work cafeteria and then later, for a local upstart marketplace. But there is more to this sourdough than meets the eye and Lois may not be as in control as she thinks she is...
There is a thread of magical realism running through SOURDOUGH that keeps the pacing lively and readers engaged. The novel is more realistic than not, but the sourdough is seen as other. It isn't the same as other sourdough. The Clement Street Starter is special. It sings at night. It needs music to grow properly. It is a living, breathing organism and becomes a character in its own right as the book progresses.
Before SOURDOUGH, I never thought about where bread comes from. But after reading the lovely passage,
"Sourdough bread begins with sourdough starter, which is not merely living but seeing. It is a community of organisms comprised of, at minimum, yeast, which is a fungus, and lactobacillus, a bacteria. They et flour--its sugars--and poop out acid--thus, sour--in addition to carbon dioxide, which, trapped by stretchy, glutenous dough, gives the bread an airy structure, the so-called crumb, at its prettiest a dazzling network of gaps and chambers."
(pg. 36, e-book edition)
I know that I'll never eat bread in quite the same way again, knowing that I'm eating fungus farts. Though...I also won't stop eating it. So there's that!
I really loved the mythology infused into the novel. It reared its head in small ways, and showed that even though Lois had an analytical brain and outwardly practical, she has a bit of the dreamer in her, too. When Lois auditions to join the San Francisco Farmers Market, she describes the judges as:
"It looked like a committee of harvest gods drawn from all the pantheons. All except one, seated at the end of the table, who seemed less Demeter or Dionysus, more Hades. Her hair was shiny and slicked back; she wore a slouchy black leather jacket over a shimmering black T-shirt. Maybe she was the token goddess of death, and also of street fashion... They were smiling, apple-cheeked, with friendly wrinkles around their eyes. They were wide-framed and golden-whiskered. They didn't seem like cruel, uncompromising judges at all. Even the queen of the underworld was smiling."
(pg. 76, ebook edition)
There was even humor a few pages later that built from this--especially if you're a fan of mythology:
"In every legend of the underworld, there is the same warning: Don't eat the food. Not before you know what's happening and/or what bargain you're accepting."
(pg. 89, e-book edition)
Later on, Lois describes a cafe as "...a house of darkest gingerbread, odd-angled and enormous, seeming to lean slightly on its neighbors... It was very clearly a witch's abode." (pg. 124, e-book edition)
I loved these little nods and insights into Lois that gave her more substance and depth. She isn't the same as the other programmers, and that gives her the courage to dedicate so much of her life and soul to the mysterious starter. There are also great asides where we learn lore from the Mazg, as well as one where we get a sweet story from the past. It all worked to keep the novel moving and keep readers engaged, and the elements all went together beautifully.
It's hard to describe this book, especially without giving keypoints away, but it was highly enjoyable. It had just the right amount of the mystic; sometimes, mystical realism goes off on a rail and loses me. In this book, the balance was perfect. It was mostly realistic, with just a dash of the mysterious to keep readers guessing.
MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE has been on my TBR for a long time, and now, hearing that it is similar in tone to SOURDOUGH, I know I have to bump it up my reading list and dive into it very soon. It is to booklovers what SOURDOUGH is to foodies, so I know I'll fall head over heels when I get a chance to pick it up!
SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan was published on September 5, 2017 by Macmillan // Farrar, Straus and Giroux.