Published by Knopf
Publication date: May 24th 2016
Genres: Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
“You know what I dislike? When people use the future as a consolation for the present.”
Tess arrives in NYC in the summer of 2006 from somewhere, but it doesn’t matter where because as far as she is concerned she didn’t exist before passing through the tollbooth onto the island of Manhattan. And we shouldn’t care either, which we don’t, because in short order Tess’s real life begins. LIFE, all-caps-life begins. Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler’s electrifying debut novel, is split into the four seasons of Tess’s new life. She secures a job at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. Upscale enough that the term ‘waitress’ does not apply nor is she qualified for it. There are servers and even that is beyond her. Her initial job is as a trailer—the peon who moves behind everyone else, learning, until they have proven they can do the job. By the time the following spring rolls around there is a new Tess—one tested in the field of professional and personal combat and Danler has taken us along for the ride on a dizzying journey of young adulthood.
Combining the intensity of being twenty-two and working in a well-known NYC restaurant results in an almost explosive level of energy throughout Sweetbitter. There is recognition in so many of Tess’s thoughts, responses and feelings. That time in life when possibility was everywhere; when possibility was you. Of course, it always had to lead to disappointment and betrayal at a level you were certain no one in the world had ever undergone. The shy beginnings of friendships that feel destined to be profound but which can be dismantled by a single look or word, leaving a storm of emotion behind.
Sometimes my sadness felt so deep it must have been inherited. It had a refrain, and even though I had evened out my breathing by the time I reached First Avenue, the refrain wouldn’t leave me. It was guttural and illogical and I repeated it endlessly like a chant: Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.
This is Tess, clumsily trying to navigate a friendship with the mysterious Simone, the top server and wine expert at the restaurant. She is everything Tess aspires to be. As she teaches her about the exotic world of wine we become drunk on Danler’s ripe prose, with its notes of seduction and competition, the finish of jealousy. The student wants to surpass the master and in the brashness of youth Tess misunderstands the game. This same bravado will even flare mightily in her personal life when she feels she’s not being taken seriously.
“You are all terrified of young people. We remind you of what it was like to have ideals, faith, freedom. We remind you of the losses you’ve taken as you’ve grown cynical, numb, disenchanted, compromising the life you imagined.”
The emotionality of Sweetbitter is cut with the physical brutality of restaurant work, endurable only when you’re that young. Tess suffers burns, cuts, falling down stairs, crazy hours, crazy people, a frenetic pace, camaraderie, too much of everything—booze, food, drugs, laughter, emotion. Early on she even learns the secret to being a world-class server
The Owner called it the Excellence Reflex. The reflex was to see beyond my line of vision, to see around and behind myself. The breath between consciousness and action collapsed. No hesitations, no projections, no order. I became a verb.
Danler operates in the same way in Sweetbitter. She shepherds the reader with the smooth skill of the perfect server, ensuring that while there is a frenzy of activity going on behind the scenes to create our experience, we never see it. The novel simply unfolds and we’re so caught up in the utter enjoyment of the meal that is Sweetbitter, we have no idea of the effort that went into the execution. Unless you have even the slimmest dreams of writing and then this is one of those debuts that leave you astounded and jealous. That words can be roped and corralled into saying what the reader didn’t even know could be said but has felt inside is a skill beyond most and a gift that only comes from tremendous effort.
There are few things more exhilarating or painful than entering adulthood—graduating college, leaving it all behind and starting anew in a place where you can be a new invention of yourself. Sweetbitter may be about life in the restaurant world, but the profession is the least of the novel. Tess climbs and climbs, strives with all the naiveté of a first timer in the business world and when she steps off the edge of a cliff she didn’t see because she was so strong and so sure of where she was going it makes for reading that hammers against the sternum. No matter what age you are when you read this novel Danler has so perfectly recreated a time in life we’ve all experienced that Sweetbitter leaves a taste that lingers long after the last page.