Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Read in January 2018

3 of 5 stars

Like thousands of young people before her, 22-year-old Tess arrives in New York City with a dream, not much money, and a plan that is sketchy at best (to knock on restaurant doors until someone hires her). But unlike other young people, for whom a restaurant job is a stepping stone to a dazzling future (usually one involving fame and fortune), Tess’s dream is simply to work in a restaurant and learn about food. Much more quickly than she imagines possible, she talks herself into a job, as back waiter (ie, busboy) at a high-end Manhattan restaurant. And over the next 12 months, she learns many lessons, not all of them about food and wine. For Tess, low person on the restaurant staff totem pole, the work is grueling and the hours long, but she understood what she signed up for going in and absorbs each success and failure as a stage in a necessary process. In Stephanie Danler’s undeniably claustrophobic debut novel, Tess’s social life also revolves around the restaurant. In fact, the restaurant swallows Tess’s life whole, more or less—every relationship, every conversation, every piece of gossip, begins and ends with the restaurant. After close, she regularly meets with other staffers for drinks at a late-night bar, often rolling into her shared Williamsburg flat as the sun is coming up. Eventually, after much teasing, halting conversations, and fumbling in the cloakroom, she embarks on a stormy relationship with Jake, the taciturn bad-boy bartender whose mysterious bond with Simone, the ultra-competent senior server, nonetheless persists. Learning by doing, constantly pushing to be better, Tess finds herself a favourite of management, in line for a promotion (if only there were an opening). But Tess, though smart and self-reliant, is also impressionable. Her longing to be a part of something larger than herself renders her more emotionally vulnerable than she might care to admit. Finally, buckling under the pressures of work, play and love, she allows herself to be sucked into a vortex where bad behaviour is the norm and there is nothing to prevent her indulging a burgeoning appetite for drugs and booze. Sweetbitter is an unsentimental coming-of-age story that strips the polite veneer off restaurant life. Nothing is glossed over. Here are the petty rivalries, the in-fighting, the cruelty, the sexual exploitation that goes on behind the scenes. No one is immune. Tess is reckless and fearless: a glutton for punishment; we feel her pain but cringe when she debases herself. Danler’s jittery narrative creates a gripping push and pull: we’re often repelled, but can’t take our eyes away from the train wreck about to happen. The book is also stunningly written—crammed with startling metaphors, apt observations on modern life and shimmering descriptions of the New York skyline—a saving grace since Tess so often tests the reader’s patience. In the end, Sweetbitter is a book that we finish despite itself, steered through the rubble of Tess’s restaurant career by the author’s firm hand.