Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)

“I imagined being interviewed ten years from now. My amicable interviewer would ask me about my origins. I would tell him that for so long I thought I would be nothing; that my loneliness had been so total that I was unable to project into the future. And that this changed when I got to the city and my present expanded and my future skipped out in front of me.” 34

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is an amazing, raw, gritty story about the wild and seedy underbelly of New York City’s high-end restaurant industry. The story is narrated by Tess, a small-town girl who moves to the the city with dreams for a bigger life. Tess gets a coveted job in one of the city’s most elite restaurants and so begins her education about living an urban, cultured life — wine, fine foods, drugs, drama, hierarchies, art, music, theater, “they were fluent in rich people” — all gleaned from her frantic, heady days working with the restaurant’s staff and studying its wealthy customers.

Tess’s new life is far cry from her small town upbringing: from Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to $100 glasses of wine, from high school football games to exhibit openings at The Met. In the haze of her wild new life — exhausted, high, experiencing something new every minute of every day — things are sharp and real and alive.  The vibrancy of this newness makes her simple, lonely life before New York City blur into a distant memory.

Soon Tess realizes that while the city offers her to chance to learn limitless new things, the people in it are largely emotionally distant from her. The harsh realities of the city — its indifference and rudeness infectious; its anonymity creating an environment ripe for misbehavior — have warped the people around her, making them resist her attempts to befriend them or establish meaningful, trusting connections. They no longer trust the future, she begins to see, the dreams they came to the city with have faded and her hopefulness makes them pity her.

“You’re all terrified of young people. We remind you what it is like to have ideals, faith, freedom. We remind you of the losses you have taken as you’ve grown cynical, numb, disenchanted, compromising the life you imagined.” 196

Although she has been warned against it, indeed her own instincts tell her to avoid the trouble, Tess falls for a angry, withdrawn, moody man who works with her. Not only does Jake bring his own turbulence to her life, with his lies and his unwillingness to commit to her; Jake is deeply entangled with the restaurant’s most important employee (and Tess’ idealized mentor), Simone. Together, Jake and Simone awaken her to all of the tastes, textures, and delights that life has to offer and Tess grows wild with the new knowledge. Her willingness to be mistreated, lied to, and led astray are all part of the hedonistic life she is now living…a life that, despite its draw-backs, makes her feel alive for the first time. The ultimate fallout seems inevitable, but to Tess what she gains in the moment is worth the heartbreak along the way.

Danler’s writing is so vivid that you cannot help taste, feel, and experience everything alongside Tess — each sip of wine; each oyster; each line of coke — and the city seems to come alive as Tess explores it. Although I find their stories heart-breaking at times, Danler’s characters feel undeniably real and it is easy to see the dreamers who came to New York City full of hope underneath the jaded people they have become. Undeniably, this a wonderful book.

“You will see it coming. Not you, actually, because you don’t see for yourself yet, everyone is busy seeing for you, days filled with unsolicited advice you don’t take and trite warnings you can’t hear and the whitewashing of all your excitement. Yes, they definitely saw it coming, exactly the way it came. When you’re older you will know that at some unconscious level not only did you see it coming, but you created it, in your own blind, stumbling way.” 255

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