I admit, I’m already a bit biased toward reading Robin Sloan’s second novel, Sourdough. I enjoyed Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and I heard Sloan speak on an author panel at BookFest St. Louis. Naturally, he talked about this new novel, specifically about how food is such an interesting topic to write about and how he wrote his characters. I couldn’t resist picking this book up on a Barnes and Noble visit and to take a peek at the first few pages to decide: To read or not to read?
“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?” — Sourdough on Amazon
Based on the summary and Sloan’s description of the book on the panel, it seems like this book will focus strongly on characterization—and the character, Lois, seems interesting (always a good start). From the summary, it’s clear that food will be a central theme in the book, and I’m interested in seeing how Sloan handles the nuances of our relationship with food, eating, and bodies. The description of the sourdough starter is intriguing: It’s alive and personified. I want to read about this personified piece of dough as much as I want to read about the main human character.
Oh, and a secret market fusing food and tech? Yup, I’m in.
The cover perfectly captures the magical realism vibe that Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore exudes. The cover art literally points to a loaf of sourdough bread, which is exalted, floating magically in the sky over San Francisco with rays of light—or perhaps cosmic energy—emanating from it. What is this magical bread? The cover draws me in.
“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.”
This is a pretty good first line. Immediately, I want to know what this “nutritive gel” is and why this person is eating it on the regular. I don’t know who this narrator is or where he or she lives, but I’m sufficiently intrigued.
Sloan’s style is—even in just a few pages—vivid and interesting. It’s funny. It reminds me of Roald Dahl in that the words jump off the page in a humorous and slightly heightened way from how people actually talk. There’s something mysteriously charming in the way Sloan describes the menu:
“The words were written in a dark, confident script—actually, two scripts: each dish was described using the alphabet I recognized and again using one I didn’t, vaguely Cyrillic-seeming with a profusion of dots and curling connectors….At the top, the restuarant’s name was written in humongous, exuberant letters: CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH….The menu charmed me, and as a result, my night, and my life, bent off on a different track.”
I mean, how do you read that and not want to know how this character’s life is changed by a soup and sourdough restaurant?
In just three pages, I know these things about the character: She lives in San Francisco but is from Michigan. She was recruited by a design manufacturer that needed programmers. She’s a Harry Potter fan. She lives in an apartment but apparently eats “nutritious gel” each night—until a paper menu changes her life.
Perhaps most revealing in the first three pages of Sourdough is the main character’s reaction to being contacted by a recruiter on LinkedIn:
“Here’s the thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”
Already in three pages, we’ve hit upon what could be a promising strand of characterization to explore: the Millennial generation’s sense of destiny and desire to belong. I hope that Sloan explores this in the rest of the novel.
This may be reaching, but I feel like I know something about another character already, too. I’m guessing that we’ll meet the owner(s) of this Clement Street Soup and Sourdough restaurant who has left a menu on our main character’s door. Who could possibly be behind this mysterious menu that features a Cyrillic script? An introduction this mysterious deserves an explanation (or at the very least, an exploration) of this restaurant and its owner.
First three pages
Honestly, I’m all in after reading the first three pages. I want to read more of Sloan’s sharp and witty writing style. I want to find out why this restaurant changes the main character’s life and why she had been eating gel. I want to hear about her design manufacturing job (maybe). I want to learn more about this mysterious restaurant. And most importantly, I want to get to know this character: Who is this young woman who moved across the country for a job because the recruiter paid attention to her and wants to be sorted à la Harry Potter?
To read or not to read?
TO READ! I’m buying this. By the time your read this, I’ll have bought it.