Reading Resolution: “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan

9. A book recommended by someone:  Sourdough by Robin Sloan

List Progress: 1/25

You know those pieces of media where you reach the end and say “I don’t really know what the creator was trying to say”? Sourdough by Robin Sloan is definitely one of those. Received as a gift, I dove into this novel that seemed to appeal directly to my interests: it is about a hobbyist baker in San Francisco who gets caught up in the magic of making sourdough bread after she is gifted a very special starter. The book moves quickly and has a lot of things to say. I’m just not sure if Sloan sat down and decided what it was all supposed to amount to. As such, the end result feels somewhat (if you will forgive the bread pun) underproved.

The main character is a machinery programmer named Lois working at a tech startup in an incredibly detailed depiction of San Francisco. (Seriously, I live in the Bay Area and some scenes were spot-on descriptions of real world places I’ve been to, in both physical and tonal details.) Lois is feeling spiritually and mentally drained from the demanding yuppie tech world until she discovers a new takeout place that makes amazing soup and sourdough bread, run by two brothers of the “mysterious quirky foreigner” type. They develop a friendship and shortly thereafter the brothers have to leave the country, leaving Lois a parting gift of some of their sourdough starter. This all was maybe the first two chapters, and I would have preferred a book with a lot more of it, especially given the direction the ending goes in. But instead we get Lois’ entry into the world of foodie tech hipsters.

You see, this book is about a white woman using a personal gift of a man of color’s culture (as in bacterial culture, but the book draws the wordplay parallel many times) and using it as a tool of personal discovery and financial gain. It is so on the nose that I was assuming the book was going to make a point of it, especially as Lois stumbles into the professional culinary success that the chef brother Beoreg is consistently denied, but…nope. It goes without comment. I’m not even sure if author Robin Sloan realizes the situation he painted here, but the nomadic foreign brothers exist only to give Lois a new perspective and lease on life. And considering part of the novel’s conclusion is a debate about ownership of the starter between Lois and a different character entirely, it’s a bit of an uncomfortable dynamic.

Weird cultural appropriation subtext aside, the book has a muddled view of who it is rooting for, with sides in culinary debates being declared antagonists with no real rhyme or reason. Oh no, this character wants to mechanize and bring science into the magic of the starter! Ignoring the fact that Lois uses a tech startup robot in the production of her bread… Oh no, that character has stuffy, affected old-world ideas about food! Ignoring that Lois’ journey is all about her hand-making bread, one of the most affected old-world things you can do these days… It all just comes across unclear and muddled about what the book is trying to say, if it’s trying to say anything at all.

Sourdough is the epitome of a beach read. The prose moves fast, the characters are quirky and fun, the settings are well-painted and the escapist fantasy of giving up your soul-crushing job to bake bread and talk to foodies all day is fun to indulge in. But if you’re looking for something to dig into, try to find something with a bit more meat. (Had to get one more food pun in, sorry.)

Would I Recommend It: Yeeees, but not highly. Good to read during a long plane trip or sitting on a beach.

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