In Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, “Sweetbitter”, Tess arrives in New York City from some unnamed town in rural America. She almost immediately finds a job as a glorified busboy at an upscale restaurant. She’s smart and tenacious and has a desire for more life along with a questionable sense of judgement. Tess does everything too much: work, drink, drugs, sex, love. She finds friends who become her family, but even there she makes mistakes. She’s so human it hurts.
Through Tess, the reader gets to peer into the front of house restaurant world. And if you, like me, are obsessed with all things culinary, you will love watching Tess eat her way through oysters and anchovies and even through the more pedestrian, but so intimate, family meal. She learns, with the help of her mentor Simone, a beguiling older woman, about wine, and I wanted to go out and try everything she tries (wine-wise). The restaurant scenes are incredibly vivid. From handing a stack of napkins to a customer with an eating disorder, to adding a splash of sherry to an old woman’s soup, these moments feel real and tender. When the health department shows up and all hell breaks loose, I couldn’t stop reading.
Tess falls instantly and madly in love with bad-boy bartender Jake, even when she’s repeatedly warned away from him. Jake and Simone have a long and complicated history that is never entirely clear but is definitely unhealthy. Even though we know it probably won’t end well, we hope Tess and Jake will find their way to happily ever after.
This is Tess’s coming-of-age. When she arrives in New York, she has little to no sense of herself in the world. She wonders how she can live in such a place, but then she does. She learns to keep her purse close, her eyes averted, her focus straight ahead. Along the way, she makes some really bad decisions, and she suffers the consequences. Her fallibility made me root harder for her.