Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, is one of the summer season’s great hits, and it richly deserves all the praise it’s been garnering.  Danler’s narrator/protagonist, Tess, is one of thousands of small town/provincial seekers of a more urbane, fast-paced life (two of whom, historically, included Andy Warhol and Halston) in New York. Determined to shed her sheltered, boring background, she takes off for New York, lands in the pre-developed Williamsburg in Brooklyn in one room which she can barely afford to rent, and finds herself a job as a ‘backwaiter’ in a fashionable, trendy Manhattan restaurant.   Danler’s conception of a rite of passage novel taking place in a restaurant is a brilliant conceit, and entirely plausible and credible, and suits the times in which we live perfectly: everything’s on the surface, everything appeals to our senses, the life is fast-paced and the reader drawn in instantly.  One of Danler’s great strengths is her ability to write in a seemingly adrenaline-induced state, which thus parallels the world in which Tess works and lives. There’s a constant buzz in the writing, so that the pace of life in and around the restaurant is perfectly tuned.

And Danler’s knowledge of how a restaurant works, the delineations of jobs, turfs, territories, literal and emotional, is peerless.  Tess is, at the beginning, simply known as “the new girl” and she hitches her identity and her great desire to learn about the sensual from a woman who’s more or less been running the restaurant for years. Tess is in awe of this woman’s ability to have completely aestheticized her entire life, so that the arrival, say, of certain mushrooms at the restaurant, seasonally, becomes a nearly Proustian experience for Simone, the boss and nearly love object for Tess.  Danler’s descriptions of learning about French wines, soil contents for same, or vegetables, or cheeses, is sublime, because it’s actually fascinating as well as indicative of the fast life in New York, so much of which revolves around food and restaurants.  The restaurant is indeed a world unto itself, and most of those who work there spend huge amounts of time there, or with each other at divey neighborhood bars after work; drugs, particularly of the cocaine ilk, run rampant through this world, which is as full of intrigue as it is of wine and cheese.  (Cards are kept on important guests, so that waitstaff remembers what they ate/drank during their last visit: flattering them is theatrical, and the decor and food of the restaurant are meant as an alternative reality to the patrons’ outside, “real” lives.

Tess’ education in the subtleties of food and wine is paralleled with her increasing knowledge of equally rare human behaviors, or at least behaviors that are new to Tess. She is, of course, attracted to a bartender, and she’s been warned about his possibly deranged behavior, and said bartender has had a long and ambigious relationship with the near doyenne Simone: all of this appeals to young Tess, and Danler does make life in and around the restaurant very compelling, alluring, chic/hip.  The timing of this novel is also superb, as any look at nearly any publication these days will find lengthy foci on food, wine, the accoutrements of “fine living” or “fine dining”.

Using a restaurant as the setting for a rite of passage novel is one of the cleverest ideas in this year’s fiction. And Tess isn’t a victim; she learns a lot, is prepared to have bumps in her road, and knows that at some point she’ll move on from the restaurant into something else. And since sex is second nature to Tess, who isn’t an innocent country virgin in the least, she throws herself wholeheartedly into available sexual partnerships, particular with the elusive bartender, so we aren’t getting a fairy tale-gone-wrong novel at all: this was a very smart decision on Danler’s part. And the novel is full of pithy near aphorisms; the staff at the restaurant are almost all smart people, who work there because they need jobs (there’s a fair share of creative types there).  Tess’s relative ease at integrating herself into the staff, inside and outside of work, is brilliantly rendered by Danler.  Sweetbitter is probably the summer publishing world’s great surprise, and I recommend it completely: this is not in any way beach reading; it’s serious literature written by a highly talented new writer, who has moved the rite of passage novel forward by leaps and bounds.

It’s a smart, urbane, sophisticated read, and Danler is definitely a major new talent on the literary scene.

–Daniel Brown

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