Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Twenty-two-year-old Tess arrives in New York City by car in June 2006. Feeling like a Midwestern bumpkin, she has no money for tolls and has to pick up the keys to her $700/month room from a bar. Two days later she interviews at a restaurant in Union Square and gets a job as a backwaiter and barista. The restaurant is a claustrophobic world unto itself. It’s like a theatre set where the food is high art and the staff interactions are pure drama: “The Owner said, ‘Running a restaurant means setting a stage. The believability hinges on the details. We control how they experience the world: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.’” Tess soon realises that her whole life is limited to just five City blocks. Her work is repetitive, menial and utterly exhausting, punctuated by routine humiliations like breaking plates, burning herself and falling down the stairs in the middle of the restaurant.

Luckily the camaraderie makes the restaurant not just bearable but a kind of substitute home. From Nicky the jokey bartender to Sasha the flamboyant Russian backwaiter, these people become Tess’s family. It’s even called “family dinner” when the staff meets for a meal before service. After hours the place turns into a social club, with the party often moving on to bars until the wee hours. Between the free shift drinks, the cocaine and the unspoken rule that you can sleep with anyone on your level, it’s quite the hedonistic atmosphere.

However, Tess is most fascinated by two colleagues who stand apart from the crowd: Simone, the resident wine know-it-all, and bisexual bartender Jake. Try as she might, Tess can’t work out the dynamic between them. Eight years younger, Jake is like Simone’s protégé, but there’s a vague history between them – are they family, friends or former lovers? Even as Tess falls for Jake, the question of what Simone means to him remains, creating a deliciously mysterious love triangle that Danler keeps up throughout her excellent debut.

To mirror Tess’s one-year taste apprenticeship, the book is broken into four seasonal parts, headed by short sections in the second person or first-person plural. “You will develop a palate,” the novel begins. “Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.” Under Simone’s tutelage, Tess – who could barely name one type of wine during her interview – becomes a connoisseur who can discuss terroir and appreciate different varieties of oysters. She describes her first taste of truffles as “Freshly tilled earth, fields of manure, the forest floor after a rain. … Absolute sex.” To start with she expresses frustration at the constant training (“Jesus. Everything is a lesson around here. It’s just dinner”), but as time goes on she develops proper respect for food as an art form.

When an old classmate turns up at the restaurant Tess feels she has to defend her choice of job. “I wanted to say, My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine.” Likewise, New York is both an overwhelming blur and the heart of everything; she simultaneously feels “It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave.” It’s such a demanding year of new experiences that it’s no surprise when Tess can’t sustain life at this pitch. The contained one-year format is perfect for that reason: it captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia. As painful as coming-of-age can be, it’s also a concentrated dose of pure life.

We don’t actually learn Tess’s name until page 215, and her background is another of the book’s enduring mysteries. There are hints of her dysfunctional upbringing – “I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house” and forgot her birthdays – but we don’t find out until page 315 that she’s from Ohio, for instance. That absence of basic facts contrasts with the depth of Tess’s inner life to make hers an archetypal narrative of starting over in New York City. She speaks of this as a literal rebirth: “Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m.” Between Tess’s murky history and Simone and Jake’s secret connection, Danler paints a compelling picture of life as a lasting enigma.

There are nicely experimental touches to Danler’s prose. Along with the passages in the second person or first-person plural, she inserts a few odd little poems formed from snippets of overheard kitchen dialogue. In places I was reminded of the style of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Two other recent novels that kept coming to mind were Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma, about university friends who pull together to survive in recession-era New York City, and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal, another debut with a foodie theme and a nebulous main character whose life is revealed piecemeal.

Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterisation, the prose style, the plot, the timing. It’s hard to believe that Danler is a debut author rather than a seasoned professional. It may be too early to make such predictions, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and call Sweetbitter my favourite novel of 2016.

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An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Read Rebecca’s interview with Stephanie Danler in our BookBuzz section, click here.

Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter (Oneworld, 2016). 978-1780749150, 368 pp., hardback.

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