SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler, is a tart, sassy, and brilliantly- written first novel that is taking NYC by storm. I’ve been hearing the chatter about this one since long before BEA in Chicago a couple weeks ago. It’s expected to do very well. And, having now read it, I must agree, wholeheartedly!
Tess breezes over the George Washington Bridge at dawn on a June morning in 2006. She’s escaping the mundaneness of her Midwestern life; imagining herself rising above it all. She’s only 22 with most of her life ahead of her. The sky’s the limit. Surely
SWEETBITTER is the epitome of the restaurant business. In New York City, no less. The author, Danler, once worked at a world famous restaurant called Union Square Cafe, and the restaurant in this novel is very much based on this real-life place. How do I know this? Because I know. Trust me.
Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I worked in restaurants. In fact, my entire family worked in them. One member of my family is still a restaurant manager. But mostly, we have gotten away from this business. After all, it truly is a young person’s world. But having worked in the business in various ways, gives me an “in” on what goes on behind the scenes. And these scenes are from New York City ten years ago. But, still, there are some things that remain the same, or close to it.
Tess and Simone and Jake; a team. Or, maybe not so much. Tess nabs a coveted job working as a “backwaiter” (busboy) in a famous NYC restaurant that is never actually named but, as previously mentioned, is based on the real deal. Simone is a very worldly front server who has been at the restaurant for seemingly-ever. Jake is the slick looking badboy bartender who is very close to Simone…. We do not understand their relationship for most of the novel; the tension builds dramatically from this not knowing.
Tess is about to get an education of a lifetime. First she learns about palate. “You will develop a palate. A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.” But being a server, a backwaiter, or even a bartender is much more than the sum of this. If you have never worked in the “business” you are about to get your own education. And you may wish to pay attention.
I have to admit that this novel is not going to be for all my readers. In fact, I really am not sure how many people will “get” this novel. And a heads’ up for those of you who just can’t take a lot of “language.” You may take a pass on this one. But for the rest of you, hang on tight and, enjoy the ride.
I am a foodie. My entire family are foodies. In fact, my daughter will be visiting from Asheville in a few weeks. We are already rubbing our hands together and licking our chops and planning a feast to celebrate being together. No one in our family could even imagine marrying someone who is not a foodie. That’s how serious we all are.
The scenes when the health department arrive to inspect the restaurant during service go from being totally frenetic to completely hysterical. I have lived these visits. Not quite like this, but close to it. Shit happens.
Yes, this brilliant first novel is about food. About preparing food. About where food comes from. About what certain foods even are. And wine. Yes, wine. When Tess begins working at the restaurant she knows nada about wine. But as Simone takes her under her wing, we ride along with her as she learns to love wine. She lives and breathes it. Once Tess is told that after work there is a “shift” drink, she is never the same. All the staff, chef to dishwasher, pony up to the bar and drink. Free. Oh boy. That is only the beginning of the night. After all, it’s NYC and bars are open all night long. Restaurant people are a different breed. They are night people. They party hard. Drinking, drugs, and sex. And rock and roll. At times, even I have to admit the limit is pushed over and over again in this novel. It’s a young world.
Our Tess goes from being a mild-mannered lovely young impressionable girl to becoming a loud and demanding person who knows what she wants and goes after it. But, it just might kill her before she gets too far with it.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this novel. It will be interesting to see what Danler comes up with next. I will be waiting.