Warning: Do not read this book on an empty stomach. Preferably, you’ll have oysters and a great bottle of wine to pair.
I have not worked in a restaurant, but Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter makes it seem unbearable, beautiful, physically painful, delectable, emotionally draining, and worth every minute. The book follows Tess, a newcomer to New York City and the upscale restaurant business, as she navigates her way through this new world, trying to find herself and her place in it.
Both the city and the restaurant have such parallels: they seem shining and bright, beautiful and glamorous to any outsider, but the knowledgeable insider knows better. They see the seedy underbelly, where things are rotten and falling apart, the places where the flies congregate and the inspector hopefully won’t look.
The restaurant is like a microcosm of the city as a whole and Tess’s experience in the restaurant definitely shapes how she sees the city, and more broadly, the world.
The book is interesting as it is a coming-of-age novel about a girl, more of a young woman actually, but that age, 22, is when we are really beginning to make decisions about our lives here in the modern age.
College is over, the illusion is broken, there is no more stalling. What are we going to do with ourselves? Unless there’s more school in your future, now is when many kids are thrust out of the nest and into the realities of adult life.
But at the same time, we aren’t quite ready to give up on our youth yet and our 20s are definitely still a time for experimenting, reveling, and finding our place in the world—hopefully with less eyeliner, hair dye, and angst than in our teens.
The start of the book is an imperative statement: “You will develop a palate.” What is a palate? It is first of all the obvious, as Tess develops a taste for luxurious foods and begins to be able to discern the differences between types of wines, knowing every detail about each bottle and vintage.
But at the same time, that palate extends to so many other things, including sexual desire, drugs and alcohol, ambition, strength, family, and especially a taste for life, as she learns to allow herself to open up to every avenue, trying to figure out who she is going to be in this new world she’s stumbled into.
That statement about the palate isn’t just directed at Tess, either. It is for the benefit of the readers too, in hopes that this book and in a wider sense, our experiences and our willingness to be open to those experiences, will develop. We too are on a journey, just like Tess.
While we can be voyeurs on her journey, seeing everything she does for better or worse, we are the main characters on our own journey. It might be easy to judge some of Tess’s decisions, but it’s not so easy to stand at a remove from your own life.
Some books, like fantasy or science fiction, you read to take you away to another place or time. Books like Sweetbitter, so centered in the real world with all its grit and struggle, really bring you back to yourself. Though my life is not at all similar to Tess’s, I completely aligned with her struggle as a young woman of a similar age and I appreciate the way her story is told.
The moving-to-New-York-to-start-a-new-life plot line is by no means a new idea. It may be one of the oldest in the book. But Danler reinvents it just as she reinvents the male-centric coming-of-age novel, making the restaurant center stage, while New York plays a distant side role, popping up every once in a while.
The main focus is this restaurant and how her occupation as a backwaiter forms the whole of her identity during her time in the city. Outside the doors of the restaurant, not surrounded by her surrogate family, she is just another blank face in the crowd, completely indistinguishable from the thousands of other faces passing by.
She develops agency throughout the book, but holds back from using it. The reader knows she has the power based on the way her character changes. It is hard to even call her a character since she behaves so much as a real person.
The book is also divided into sections, each one named after a season: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring. It's not new either, but an interesting and subtle division that echoes Tess's journey. We work with her through the heat of summer, watching her old life fall away with as autumn comes. Into the depths of the winter she faces hardship, times of loneliness, confusion, and finds the strength to face it all. By the spring, she is ready for new growth to break through, for new experiences, for a new Tess.
In the end, Tess’s final act proves how she has learned from her experience despite her missteps and seeming inaction throughout much of the book.
There is room for her to grow, but you could say the same about all of us at any moment in our lives. How interesting would we be if there were nothing left to try, nothing left to fail at?
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Find out more about the author, Stephanie Danler
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Find out more about the publisher, Knopf (Penguin Random House)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.