Review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
“You will develop a palate.”
The opening line of any novel is pivotal to its plot - that first sentence is expected to be concise and enticing simultaneously. This sounds like an impossible task, but it was achieved by the likes of Charles Dickens and Ray Bradbury, and now, in contemporary fiction, by Stephanie Danler.
Sure, maybe the blurb on the back suggests that Sweetbitter is just another story about a twentysomething moving to New York after college with no career prospects, but the opening line says so otherwise.
It’s rare to find a book that articulates the service industry, or rather, its fine dining counterpart, in such a provocative, poetic way - especially from a woman's perspective. Danler herself worked as a backwaiter at Union Square Cafe for seven years before going to The New School and eventually writing Sweetbitter - and it shows. Her depth of knowledge as both an observer and learner soaks through every page. The writing is a mix of poetry and prose, and skillfully done, and the same can be said for the dialogue.
And part of growing up, speaking as a growing reader and writer - is being able to distinguish a good story from good writing. In most cases, books don’t possess both qualities - usually the writing makes up for what the plot lacks, or vise versa. And while a palate of my own is still developing (literature wise) - I can still say that Sweetbitter is intoxicating. I read the whole thing cover to cover in three days. And when it was over, I wanted more, and still do. This book has been in my head for months.
The protagonist of Sweetbitter, Tess, is a twenty-two-year-old college graduate who majored in English, and moves to New York from Ohio. She lands a job as a backwaiter in New York City’s most popular restaurant in Union Square, despite having no prior dining experience. The ongoing theme of taste in the novel is used to show Tess' education and exposure to food, drugs, sex, and desire as her coworkers warm up to her.
One of my favorite things about the novel is the setting - 2006. Smartphone technology was just beginning to evolve - so the novel lacks Millennial app vocabulary. The subject matter of the book stays consistent - food, wine, people, hedonism, lust, language, and obviously, New York. And none of it is tarnished by social media-speak.
2006 was also the year I arrived in New York - well, its Hudson River neighbor, Weehawken. Unlike Tess, I wasn’t twenty-two; I was nine, riding the coattails of my mother and her career as a real estate mogul. Moving away from Cleveland had given us an appetite that we would never be able to satisfy - we were jaded Midwesterners, destined to prosper. My mother avoided all tourist traps (God forbid she’d ever set foot in Times Square by choice, or take us to the observation deck of the Empire State Building) and showed my brother and I her New York - the one that included pubs and bars in the Village with good Happy Hours, bookstores where we went to when we didn’t have any money and spent hours browsing and reading. Bryant Park was our living room; one day when I was ten, my mother debunked the myth of Santa Clause over a cigarette, her legs crossed, venti Starbucks coffee perched on our table. I took this as a sign to be a realist.
During her job interview at the restaurant, the general manager asks Tess why she chose New York.
“I knew from the books, movies, and Sex and the City how I was supposed to answer. I’ve always dreamed of living here, they say. They stressed the word dreamed, lengthen it, to make it sound true.”
The only books I'd read prior to Sweetbitter that talked about the service industry mentioned serving as a way to make money. Usually these stories involved kitschy diners and quirky coworkers.
Sweetbitter presents serving, or working in a restaurant, as a way of life. The people who work in any restaurant are what make the experience. Danler writes of a world that exists at night - working long hours and going out afterwards with aching backs and feet, dive bars that come before succumbing to tiredness and sunrises.
Growing up, my father was a general manager in several high-end restaurants across the Midwest, and at one point, in New York - he now resides in Naples, doing the same. Some of my earliest memories as a kid took place in the steakhouse that my father managed in downtown Cleveland. My younger brother and I were dining far beyond the realm of chicken fingers and fries - we had steaks, grilled vegetables, and sipped on Shirley Temples. The servers and bartenders treated us like family. I'd eat raspberries off the display tray and the juice would stain my t-shirts.
Now I'm twenty-one, and my taste in wine and alcohol has yet to expand past the likes of Barefoot and locally-brewed IPAs and cheap tequila shots. "I know you young female drinkers," my dad said to me after ordering me a glass of Pacific Rim Riesling last December, "You like sweet wines." All there's left to do is make room for the bitter.
Most of my jobs have been in restaurants - casual dining, no less. But I've done the whole button-down shirts thing; my freshman year of college working for a catering company. There's a vocabulary that you absorb through the fabric of uniforms, a language that only exists between you and your coworkers. So while reading Sweetbitter, I was comforted by that, and the characters that Danler constructed. You come across a variety of personalities in this industry. Smart, money-hungry, crass, funny and fucked up in their own way. Some of us stay in the same place for years, and know every corner and crevice of our place of employment - we become veterans. And some of us drift, staying for months at a time. But at every place you develop a routine, and a rapport with who you choose to get close to. There's rarely an element of glamour behind the scenes.
Throughout the book, people continuously ask Tess what she wants. They sense her naivety. But every time someone asked Tess that question, I asked myself the same one. Referencing Keats, Tess says to her love interest, Jake "I want more than to do a good job. I want to take each experience on the pulse."
When I finished Sweetbitter, I wasn't hit with a tremendous sense of loss the way I usually am when I finish a book. I was hungry - not for a sequel, but hungry in the sense that I want a voice that can write a story like Tess'. There's so much more that I want to see, and feel, and write about - expand my palate.
So I'm going to do just that.