Sweetbitter, the debut novel from 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.
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 dish towels, delivering food, cleaning tables – 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 mere taste. Jake, the scruffy, taciturn 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. And lesser yet keen characters: 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 that work hard and party even harder.
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 writing in Sweetbitter is also complex. Author 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 provoking distain instead. 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 novel progresses, they take shape, coalescing 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 novel, we are given the gist of umami, the fifth flavor, beyond the familiar 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 or applied to a book; an acquired taste, perhaps, but definitely one worth experiencing.