Sourdough is less of a mystery to be solved than a joyful unfurling of its strange and inviting world, one almost like ours, but a bit more zany.
Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her—feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it. Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she's providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer's market, and a whole new world opens up.
When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?
Leavened by the same infectious intelligence that made Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore such a sensation, while taking on even more satisfying challenges, Sourdough marks the triumphant return of a unique and beloved young writer.
From chapter one:
Number One Eater
It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment's front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.
I was just home from work and my face felt brittle from stress—this wasn't unusual—and I would not normally have been interested in anything unfamiliar. My nightly ration of Slurry waited within.
But the menu intrigued me. The words were written in a dark, confident script—actually, two scripts: each dish was described once using the alphabet I recognized and again using one I didn't, vaguely Cyrillic-seeming with a profusion of dots and curling connectors. In either case, the menu was compact: available was the Spicy Soup or a Spicy Sandwich or a Combo (double spicy), all of which, the menu explained, were vegetarian.
At the top, the restaurant's name was written in humongous, exuberant letters: CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH. At the bottom, there was a phone number and the promise of quick delivery. Clement Street was just a few blocks away. The menu charmed me, and as a result, my night, and my life, bent off on a different track.
I dialed the number and my call was answered immediately. It was a man's voice, slightly breathless. "Clement Street Soup and Sourdough! Okay to hold?"
I said yes, and music played—a song in some other language. Clement Street was a polyglot artery that pulsed with Cantonese, Burmese, Russian, Thai, and even scraps of Gaelic. This was none of those.
The voice returned. "Okay! Hello! What can I make for you?"
I ordered the double spicy.
Why I love it
Baking has always seemed a form of magic to me. You combine ingredients that you've had sitting in the pantry all along—nothing in my hat, nothing up my sleeve—and by stirring them in the right ratio and plopping in the oven, you've turned inedible, tasteless powders into bread.
This is the realization that San Francisco engineer Lois Clarry has in Sourdough, when she inherits a mysteriously potent sourdough starter from two brothers she orders delivery from every night. Lois, who works at a company that creates industrial robotic arms, quickly discovers how satisfying it is to create something using her own arms, fulfilling some human need she hadn't even realized had gone unfulfilled. And then she discovers something else: This starter, which needs music to bubble happily and creates loaves of bread with strange faces baked into them, isn't like other starters. But Sourdough is less of a mystery to be solved than a joyful unfurling of its strange and inviting world, one almost like ours, but a bit more zany. Like baking bread, the process of reading it is where the true pleasure lies, not the end result. And like baking bread, its quirky details (a secret, experimental farmers' market; a club for only women named Lois; an eccentric culinary librarian who collects stacks and stacks of old menus; a sourdough starter that's a little bit Little Shop of Horrors) work together to create a work that's greater than the sum of their parts.
For days after I finished the book, I found myself looking up from my laptop and towards my sad, New York City kitchen (an oven that only works half the time; no counter space) and wondering what might happen if I could bake bread. Maybe it wouldn't change my life—unlike Lois, I don't see myself having the wherewithal to construct a bread oven in my backyard, or wake up early enough to consider baking as a sustainable career—but after reading Sourdough, I'm convinced my life would become just a little more magical.
Member ratings (3,582)
West Hollywood, CA
There’s something so remarkable in how deep this book is for how easy and breezy it is to read. It lacks a typical antagonist and that makes it incredibly refreshing! It’s just such a delight to read!
I so loved this book! It stuck with me for days after finishing. I always love a little magic in my books, and this definitely had that slightly mystical element. And it’s a foodie book! Double love!
I really enjoyed Lois and her adventures. She’s the embodiment of a successful young woman, and yet life keeps giving her huge choices to make. It took an unexpected turn in the end, but I liked it!
New City, NY
I loved this book. It's a great reminder of how capable humans are even in this age of technology. Everyone should learn how to cook or bake something so they get the grounding Lois (# 1 eater) did.
Hayward , CA
Sloan's writing is lyrical & observant; his characters are endearing & compelling. Sourdough is a fun/ny portrait of the Bay Area, and of a woman coming to know herself and making her way in the world