Book Review: Sweetbitter
Danler makes fusion cuisine of the kitchen confidential genre and a naif-in-the-city tale and reaps the rewards of both
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 4, 2016
"You will develop a palate." Stephanie Danler opens her striking debut novel with this food-centric variant on "Girl, you'll be a woman soon." The palate in question, and the rocky path into something like adulthood, is that of Midwesterner Tess, who arrives in New York unformed and flat-broke, hungry for experience and a sense of community. By accident, she stumbles into a job that feeds her appetite, quite literally, as a backwaiter at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. (It's modeled after Danny Meyer's Union Square, where Danler worked in her early 20s.) An eager and, notably, very pretty clod of clay, Tess doesn't just develop a palate, although her culinary education gives Danler occasion to write precise, rhapsodic passages about food and wine as Tess' tongue alights to oysters and heirloom tomatoes and terroir's special imprint on a Burgundy. Over the course of a year, Tess also develops a tough skin, a tenderized heart, a taste for cocaine, and a voice – first hatchling, then more confident, and more cruel.
Talk about fusion cuisine: Danler is deliciously mixing genres here – the kitchen confidential with a bildungsroman about a naif in the big city – and reaps the rewards (gossipy, literary) of both. Her first-person insight into how a restaurant runs is the behind-closed-doors stuff that outsiders hunger for – that insider lens into the egos in the kitchen, the degradations of mop work, the staggering class divide between the clientele and those that serve them, the bonds that form between workers after hours – and the sex. Anyone who's ever worked at a restaurant already knows how close quarters and vampire hours and another round, barkeep! breed sex, but Danler silkily connects the dots back to the sensuality of the job itself.
Danler has a background in poetry, which occasionally over-colors her prose ("As I walked, lust rubied my blood" surely reads better in verse). But she economically uses snatches of poetry to corral a cacophony of voices outside of Tess', in a stream of consciousness that catches the headiness and clubbiness and contact high of being in the weeds.
Sweetbitterby Stephanie Danler
Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pp., $25
Stephanie Danler will speak about Sweetbitter in the session “We’re Gonna Make It After All,” with Eimear McBride (The Lesser Bohemians) and moderator Dalia Azim, on Sun., Nov. 6, 2:30pm, in Capitol Extension Room E2.010.