Stephanie Danler
Alfred A. Knopf
Release Date:  May 24, 2016
ISBN 978-11-0187-594-0

Sweetbitter, the debut novel from newcomer Stephanie Danler, is a lot like New York City:  completely wrapped up in itself, which means it is sometimes incredibly pretentious, and at other times absolutely perfect.  It is, however, uniquely honest with itself and the reader.

Told in the voice of Tess, a 23 year old “from a place so small you couldn’t find it on a generous map” who arrives in New York City in 2006, Sweetbitter follows her journey (she likens it to a birth) from coffee shop barista to working in one of the finest restaurants in the Big Apple – a step that takes her only one interview to accomplish.  The job is as a lowly backwaiter – folding napkins, handing out bar mops (restaurant dish towels), delivering food to tables, cleaning tables; I guess that’s the society term for busboy – but it opens up a world of taste and service that might someday move her into a coveted server position.

If you’re looking for an eye-opening narrative of how a fine dining establishment operates, then you’re bound to be disappointed; Sweetbitter is far more concerned with the workers themselves as they function behind the front of house rather than with the guests themselves (although when there is interaction with guests, it’s peerless).   Relationships are at the heart of this story:  Simone, the enigmatic senior server whose knowledge of wine is deep and impeccable; in her acerbic way, she teaches Tess about flavors that go far beyond taste; Jake, the scruffy, taciturn yet charismatic bartender, related to Simone in some bizarrely intimate way, with whom Tess immediately becomes enamored.  Chef, who runs the kitchen with an iron fist through skill, intimidation and fear.  Howard, the immaculate manager, the remote yet omnipresent Owner, and the others in the kitchen:  cooks, servers, kitchen crew – all become a rough and hard pressed kind of family.  They work hard and party even harder.  After hours excesses are the norm.  Personalities are larger than life, but never bigger than the restaurant itself.

Then there are the relationships with the food and drink:  dishes, wines, spices; oysters, mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, escarole, spirits.  The refinement of taste, the discernment of geography, the balances, the surprises, the genius of heightened culinary accomplishments.  All told through the sensibilities of someone intoxicated at the opportunity to begin at the beginning, to learn, to open herself to all that is new, all that is astonishing, all that is infinitely complex and liberating.  The food, and so much more.

The writing in Sweetbitter is also complex.  Author Stephanie Danler rarely gives up explanations, instead sweeping the reader along with Tess’s stream-of-consciousness experiences, often jumping from disconnected thought to disconnected thought, slipping into scenes without placing them, making the reader delve through multiple sentences to establish a place or characters.  It’s disjointed, but also a rush – we hang on, and feel off balance, but swept up when the details crystallize into a picture so sharp it almost cuts.

It’s often not a pretty picture.  The rampant drug use, the drinking to ugly excess, the ways people hurt each other, the language, the sexuality – there is no sense of consequence.  The meanderings of Tess’s mind (the author’s words) are sometimes overtly pretentious, a dropping into the oblique in order to evoke but often merely provoking distain.  Petty, indulgent, as if daring us to find it poetic. (“I held it in my body – the precarious balance between the quotidian and the Technicolor madness.”)

Events unfold strictly in the moment.  As the book progresses, they take shape, and coalesce into a purpose beyond hanging on by the fingertips; the writing gets less obtuse and the poetry become genuine.  Tess may still be “the new girl”, but we have gotten to know her even as she continues to surprise and confound, disappoint and endear, mainly because the narrative is so unforgiving and honest.  At the end of the book we may still not understand all that has gone on or the why of it, but we have indeed been through a bracing journey.

At the beginning of the book, we are given the gist of the fifth flavor, following sour, salty, sweet and bitter:

Umami:  uni, or sea urchin, anchovies, Parmesan, dry-aged beef with a casing of mold.  It’s glutamate.  Nothing is a mystery anymore.  They make MSG to mimic it. It’s the taste of ripeness that’s about to ferment.  Initially, it serves as a warning.  But after a familiarity develops, after you learn its name, that precipice of rot becomes the only flavor worth pursuing, the only line worth testing.

Applied to a dish, applied to a book, an acquired taste, perhaps, but definitely one worth experiencing.

~ Sharon Browning

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