Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is not the sort of book I normally read, but my daughter works in the restaurant business, so we decided to read it together. She read a paper copy and I listened to audio. This novel earned its young debut-author a six-figure advance but it's meeting with mixed reviews; critics are swooning but readers aren't so smitten: on Goodreads, they're more inclined to three stars.
Sweetbitter tells the story of Tess, a 22-year-old Midwesterner who, in 2006, leaves home to move, solo, to New York City, where she quickly lands a back-waiter position at one of New York's most prestigious restaurants (a loosely disguised Union Square Café).
What follows is the narrative of her exhilarating, heartbreaking, exhausting, energizing new life. There's a great deal of food and wine talk, lots and lots of drugs, and a generous helping of sex. Foodies will enjoy the book for the truffles, figs, and oysters alone. It's the alcohol- and drug-fueled decadence that seems to turn some readers off, but my daughter confirms that the lifestyle Danler depicts is spot-on for many in the industry.
Sweetbitter looks, and occasionally reads, like a nice bit of fluff, but the novel is more than a beach book. It's got some meat on its bones. For one thing, Danler can write and she has a wonderful eye for the telling detail, whether it's the look, smell, and feel of a rapidly altering New York City or the devastating after-effects of an over-the-top binge. The rigors of restaurant work are nicely drawn too, and we get a genuine feel for staff camaraderie, liaisons, and clashes, the flawless nights of almost-choreographed service and the nights that are slapstick fiascos.
I found the book's ending to be something of a disappointment. That aside, what impressed me most about the book is the author's psychological acuity. She describes her character's loneliness in the vast, churning city, or her sudden recognition of the shallowness of her staff friendships, and the reader feels these things too. For all her callow youth, Tess's observations are often wise beyond her years and it's a testament to the author that they so often ring true.
Audio Notes: the audiobook narrator takes a little getting used to -- her voice is husky, characterized by what reviewers call "vocal fry," but once I adjusted, I enjoyed her nuanced reading. She's great with accents too and has some fun with southern, Bronx, and heavy Russian ones.
~Ann, Adult Services