Sweetbitter

sweetbitterThe Short Version: In June 2006, 22-year-old Tess arrives in New York City. She soon finds a job working at a prestigious restaurant in Union Square and falls under a spell: the spell of the city, the spell of the restaurant, the spell of her older colleague, the spell of a handsome bartender, and more.

The Review: There’s nothing in the world like coming to New York in your early twenties. I can’t say for sure but I’d argue that no other city delivers quite the same jolt to the senses – especially if you arrive in summer. Tess, the narrator of Stephanie Danler’s outstanding debut novel, is one such arrival. It won’t surprise you to know that I was one as well. Summers in New York are often brutally, even oppressively, hot and they can make you wonder why on earth you’ve chosen to live here… but there’s also, for the true believers, a magical quality to those sweltering days. There’s a sense of unending possibility, of a stream of potential energy constantly available to be tapped. There is a sense of life itself, in its rawest and headiest forms.

Maybe that’s just youth talking. There is, as anyone speaking to an early twentysomething can tell you, an exaggerative predisposition found in the young transplants of New York. But as I started this book, I found myself recalling – and even, tangentially, reliving – those blissed out early years of moving to New York with dreams (particular ones, sure, but mostly just a bag load of all kinds of dreams) and a desire to experience everything I possibly could. Danler’s prose evoked those memories for me the same visceral way that scents or tastes usually achieve. She manages to, somehow, steal the way that we humans interact with and recall food and transform it into words on a page without losing any of the potency.

Perhaps Danler is able to slide that evocative sense-memory of food into other realms of life experience because she’s so damn good at talking about food. Yes, the novel opens with a slightly stagey description of the different types of taste – and the lines that bookend the opening paragraph (“You will develop a palate… You will never simply eat food again.”) are the kind that might incline you to roll your eyes a little at what seems, at first, like some kind of exaggeration or overstatement. But the subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) hat tip to Jay McInerney works: already, within a page, her writing catches you like an intense pair of eyes across a crowded bar. By the time we were into the second chapter and she’d gotten her job at the Restaurant (a very thinly veiled Union Square Café, may its 16th Street location rest in peace). I couldn’t put the book down. And then the food really started to show up.

Food and sex are, rightly, intertwined in our consciousness. Great tastes are described as “better than sex” and there are a ton of euphemisms that bring culinary descriptions to carnal encounters. Even the describing of food, the education around it, can often be a kind of seduction – and Danler hits it hard, here. Tess falls quickly for two figures at the restaurant: Jake, the bad-boy heartthrob obviously-pretty-emotionally-fucked-up bartender, and Simone, the elegant elder stateswoman of the restaurant staff. Simone, against all odds, takes Tess under her tutelage and teaches her about the obvious – various tastes, wines, etc – but also leads by example, delivering an air of mystique and confidence that Tess strives to emulate. I was reminded, of all cultural references, of the relationship between Hailey and Cynthia on Mozart in the Jungle (esp in the first season) – and, just to say, Saffron Burrows would play the shit out of Simone if this ever gets turned into a movie.

But Simone and Jake have a complex, confusing relationship and as Tess becomes a part of it – emotionally, spiritually, and physically (albeit in different ways and intensities across those three things) – she becomes more adrift in this brave new world. Meanwhile, as she works at the restaurant and becomes stronger as an employee, she also becomes a little wilder. I’ve never worked in the service industry but I’ve heard tell – and I’ve certainly heard tell of the industry in NYC. In the novel, as a broad example, the staff at the restaurant often, after close, take the trip one block down to Park Bar, where they proceed to drink and do copious amounts of coke until the wee small hours. But the drug use, the sex, the ebb and flow of workplace friendships… Danler doesn’t let it, any of it, ever become cliché. Instead, all of it feels like we are living it right alongside Tess. As she makes mistakes, both in the restaurant and in life, we don’t so much want to urge her to be better as we catch the blows in the same way and attempt to pick ourselves up right alongside her. A harrowing night of overindulgence leaves us just as hungover as Tess – to the point that I felt the ghost of hangovers past, of nights where I’ve done stupid things, rising up inside my own memory. Every young New Yorker has a shared vocabulary here and Danler wields it to perfection.

She’s also just a writer of outstanding poise. “That was the morning I committed the first sin of love, which was to confuse beauty and a good soundtrack with knowledge.” “You were a sponge for incident… They don’t remember, nobody remembers what it feels like to be so recklessly absorbent.” “I didn’t know how badly I had needed them and how I’d been waiting for them, but I endured it, my joy, don’t ever forget this moment…” She even turns the McInerney trick – the second-person narration – into the sort of thing that you’d expect a girl coming to NYC in 2006 would understand because they would’ve read Bright Lights, Big City and so of course that second-person narration would be understood. And don’t even get me started on how she talks of food, wine, terroir, and so on: I can’t do it justice. It’s some of the best food writing I’ve ever consumed, pun absolutely intended.

The final note before letting you go and urging you to just go buy this book already is one on nostalgia, especially as relating to New York. It comes up, in the novel, the sense that New York is never as good as it used to be. That those who stick around will be longing for the New York that they arrived into. I feel it, when I look around and see how my neighborhoods have changed in the six years since I moved here. And while I can’t speak to the New York of 2006-7 that Danler evokes here, I can speak to the broader thing that she evokes: the sense of the New York that you arrived into. Perhaps this gets to what I was talking about at the beginning of this review, the magical quality of those first summers and those first experiences. There’s nothing like them, no moment so perfect as those cast in your mind forever from a “simpler” time. When things were “better”. It was more “authentic”. Maybe that’s true – but maybe it just felt authentic, better, simpler because you were more open, then. Reckless absorption has never felt so good as it did then or as it does here.

Rating: 5+ out of 5. A gobsmackingly good debut. Danler’s writing is hip and assured and she writes about food in a way that immediately rivals the very best evocations of taste and experience. Tess is an immediately identifiable heroine, especially (or at least) for those who moved to New York as a young person too, and her year of learning – her first year or her twenty-third, depending on how you count – is exactly as intense and beautiful and potent and sad and wonderful and magical as you remember yours to’ve been. I couldn’t put this book down and I’m envious of everybody who’ll read it for the first time this summer. Savor it, like you would a good meal. Or devour it; either way, you’re doing it right.

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4 comments

  1. Although I really didn’t like New York when I went there, I had a lot of friends who did and who remain there to build up their careers, so I can see myself wondering if the character’s experience relates to them. I also love food, so would really enjoy that aspect of this novel. Sounds good. Thanks for the review!

  2. Pingback: The Argonauts | Raging Biblio-holism

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