Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter is one of those “hasn’t changed my life but I am certainly glad I read it” kind of reads.
What interested me the most about Sweetbitter, which has recently landed at Starz and will be adapted for TV by Brad Pitt, was the semi-fictitious account of Danler’s time working in hospitality. It certainly spoke to my experience of working in multiple restaurants and bars in New York. I started at each with a multitude of new faces, names, and stories to disentangle. Danler is gifted at harnessing an atmosphere and writing descriptively about it. Her carefully constructed sentences about the inner workings of a celebrated Union Square restaurant are rhythmical, beautiful, and apt.
Image Via Arcadia Press
The story follows 22-year-old Tess from the Midwest as she struggles to survive the social ins and outs of her life during her first full year living in Williamsburg and working in Manhattan. Her job involves back-waiting in a Union Square restaurant where she treads the deep end having little knowledge about food, wine, how to clean a drain, and more or less anything about herself. Whilst navigating this new world loaded on a cocktail of cocaine, alcohol and no sleep, the catalyst of the story is her unwavering, insatiable obsession with making brooding bartender Jake her fella, but she feels she must also uncover the truth behind his mysterious relationship with hometown friend Simone, (which really isn’t that mysterious at all).
Danler separates this story by season (summer to summer) and, furthermore, by the occasional page-long stream-of-consciousness through which Tess seeks an understanding of the sensory overload she is experiencing. Here’s what that looks like:
“There aren’t any secrets here.
No, sherry is the new wine.
I need a Kleenex.
I need steak knives.
Like bruises under her eyes.
My rule is that I don’t buy it.
And then they asked if we had Yellow Tail.
They froze on my cheeks, just from here to the train.
Where’s the line?
Eighty-six the shrimp.
It’s an island if it’s surrounded by water.”
From Tess’s sweat-inducing interview with her future manager at the start of the novel to the endearing conversations with her regular returning customers to her classic amateur fear of carrying three plates to a table without dropping them, a lot of restaurant workers will read this book and crack a few laughs or maybe cringe a little (or a lot) for her.
I really wanted to like it, and I did to a certain degree.
Throughout the novel, I was getting the sense that the reader was being navigated toward some sort of scandalous climactic point, and Danler certainly leads us to believe so. But what the bewildering final fifty pages conveys is a big let down for me. I turned against the protagonist and her unhealthy, obsessive, jealous behaviour. It just got too annoying.
Failure to strike her readers with a definitive plot twist or notable climax was perhaps Danler’s writing strategy. I’ve come to this conclusion having let myself time and time again fall victim to the ill use of free time outside of gruelling bar work hours.
Anyone who has put time into working in a busy high end restaurant in New York or indeed any food service job will recognise the sort of monotonous shape nocturnal life takes on. The struggle to wake up before noon after having arrived in your bed at 4 a.m. leaves you little time or energy to process the direction your life is going in, at least for the following two weeks. All moments outside this environment are spent trying to fuel your body with whatever it takes so you have the energy to do it all over again the following night. By pushing back one’s priorities in this way, it creates big problems out of small ones. This is what happens to Tess, without trying to spoil her final freak out for the reader. In this way, Sweetbitter accurately showcases what life’s like doing restaurant work.
Yes, Tess may learn what terroir means and what the difference between a West Coast and East Coast oyster is and how to order two dozen of them at a seafood bar. But her main problem is her unhealthy obsession with what her peers (specifically Jake and Simone) think about her.
When she seems to have it all figured out and finally gets invited to Simone’s apartment for dinner, we are reminded through her downward spiral of emotion afterwards that the bittersweet feelings of youth still stand in the way of her character progressing. The novel becomes a sort of corrupted coming-of-age tale in this respect. Not only do her relationships grow sour but the restaurant gets closed down for a time too.
But it’s okay. I can get past the fact that the ending was a let down. Moments such as this following passage are what sweeten up the novel for me, when Tess describes a New York moment just right;
New York in the seventies it was not. No disco decadence, drag queens, nudity, or androgyny. But even with this basement’s lack of glamour, I was aware of being truly relevant – within my time and of my time. Plain-faced kids with outsized glasses, girls in gritty fur vests and boots, deep, unmovable veins of apathy and inattention that made them care more about the next ten minutes than the next ten years. They–I guess it was “we” now–wanted dance music with a knife’s edge, ironic lyrics that crossed accidentally into sincere, like they crossed into the sincere, accidentally but every so often. Everyone was stripped down in the awkward peridot of light, un-self-conscious as they pogo-ed around.
Pick up Sweetbitter here!
Feature Image Via Oxford Exchange