Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, 262 pages
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 author.
This is a kind of literary comfort food, a book without any real conflict or tension, only a tiny bit of mystery, but lots of heart. Normally this kind of book would not appeal to me at all, and the description has all the hallmarks of chick lit, but while it will probably appeal to chick lit fans, it's actually more like a modern warm-hearted comedy with a wee bit of magical SF unrealism and lots of pop culture references that will be especially appealing to Millenials in the SF Bay Area and almost inscrutably dated in a few years.
Lois Clary is a computer programmer who moved from Michegan ("a place without a Z-axis") to San Francisco to work at General Dexterity, a typical start-up matching every over-the-top description of SF start-ups, out to change the world and revolutionize work with its sentient robotic arms.
Lois soon finds that she does not love her work and she does not love the life of a start-up software engineer, making lots of money, much of which goes to pay her exorbitant San Francisco rent, and working long hours without a social life. Her fellow "Dextrous" are a typical collection of overpaid Millenials hoping to cash out on stock options. Lois is, perhaps, a Midwestern girl at heart. She seeks meaning and society, even if it's at the local chapter of the "Lois Club." Yes, there's a worldwide club of Loises, uniting all women who have the name... Lois.
That's typical of the gentle humor in this book. Lois, tired of eating Slurry, a "nutritionally complete" organic goop that is the mainstay of much of the Dextrous workforce (boy, Robin Sloan really doesn't like Soylent, does he?), starts ordering takeout from a mysterious local provider of the most exquisite sourdough sandwiches and "special spicy" soup.
When the two brothers who run the operation have to leave the U.S. - visa issues - they leave their sourdough starter with their "Number One Eater," Lois. And so Lois embarks upon an adventure in baking and food startups. She learns the ins and outs of sourdough breadmaking. She attempts to break into San Francisco's super-competitive Farmer's Market cabal. She is recruited by a secret society of disruptive foodies, and her sourdough of mythic and heroic provenance is the MacGuffin sought by tech billionaires and would-be dietary revolutionaries.
I really liked this book. It was funny and cute and full of humor that will resonate much more with people familiar with tech start-up culture and/or San Francisco. Fortunately, I am familiar with both. It doesn't quite rate 5 stars because, come on, there's still no real conflict, it's just sweet, winsome Lois discovering that the key to happiness is baking a special sourdough (that threatens to take over an entire factory complex). But it's very enjoyable.
Also, if reading this book does not make you really crave a hot slice of crispy sourdough with cheese, then you are immune to sensory stimulation through the written word.
My complete list of book reviews.