Tess is a twenty-two-year-old running from, I think, boredom, claiming she was reborn when she crossed the George Washington bridge. Upon arriving in New York City, Tess gets a job at one of the best restaurants in town. The kind of restaurant where “back waiters” can make $60K a year, which is pretty okay in the Midwest, but probably not so much when you live in Brooklyn. I’m not sure why I mention this, maybe because it’s a detail I remember.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is Tess’ story of a year at this fancy pants restaurant. That’s all it is. Don’t expect a plot. There is none to be found. This is just a very nicely written, often frustrating slice of life masquerading as a novel.
The work is back-breaking and humiliating, but Tess quickly falls in love with the restaurant and her various co-workers, specially older, sophisticated server-extraordinaire Simone, and hunky bartender Jake, who is a lifelong friend (or lover, maybe?) of Simone’s. Tess also falls in love with wine, oysters, New York in general, and the sound of her own voice.
Oof, this one was frustrating. Make no mistake Danler is a great writer. Some of her observations are spot on, especially about nostalgia and how people mourn specific neighborhoods and eras even though they never experienced them. But the problem is that this is very much the story of a 22-year-old who is deeply in love with her twenty-two-year-oldness. Every drunken night out is worthy of endless analysis; every time the cute guy winks, grunts, or ignores you is worthy of the same analysis; and same goes for the pretty, older woman who pays attention to you. The monotony of these scenes are brutal.
It doesn’t help that Tess treats every situation and person with the same breathless, full-bore emotion — the only thing that changes is whether she super loves or super hates. The line between these two is razor thin.
This is a book that will feel familiar to anyone who had that post-college filled with hope, marking time waiting for your real life to begin experience. This is the same story no matter where the twenty-two/three-year-old is. . . midwestern gas station, Manhattan restaurant, Pacific northwest nonprofit. There isn’t much new here and you have to have a strong will to get through the boring to get to the good. Also you have to have the stomach for the pithy, second-person sections that begin each chapter.
I’m curious to see what Danler will do if she ever writes a book with an actual plot. I bet that one’s gonna be great.