Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Sweetbitter," by Stephanie Danler

I realize that I often write about the settings of novels, and that I generally prefer these to be small spaces: a village, a vacation town, a college, or even a house. As Jane Austen said about her own writing, “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing,” the setting that allows a concentration of human characteristics and behavior to be observed in detail. After reading the novel “Sweetbitter” (Knopf, 2016), I realized how its intense focus on one place, a prominent New York City restaurant, and to a much lesser extent its surroundings, allowed the author, Stephanie Danler, her close observations of this small universe of its own. The restaurant, apparently based on the famed Union Square CafĂ©, where I have read that Danler herself worked at one point, provides the main character, Tess, the new world she is looking for when she leaves her small town life and flees to New York. This specific, concentrated world is very difficult for an employee to enter, and requires months or years of training and acclimatization, and Tess struggles to learn how it all works and how she can do well at it, yet from the beginning takes to and loves the place, the people, the experience. The novel contains much information about how a high-end restaurant works, about food and wine and service, but also about the tight yet ephemeral society created by the employees. Drugs and alcohol and sex are ever present. But so is dedication to service. Tess takes it upon herself to learn everything she can about wine and food, with the help of her mentor Simone and her crush and eventual lover Jake. But not all is what it seems, and there is both great joy and great betrayal. I thought I would be writing about this novel mainly as yet another example of the tsunami of restaurant books, mostly memoirs, that have been published the past few years, many of which I have read and enjoyed. But strangely, when I started writing about “Sweetbitter” here, I realized that the restaurant part, although fascinating, especially to those of us who love good restaurants and who dine out fairly often, was not even the main point. True, readers can learn much about restaurants and fine dining when reading this novel, but we learn more about youth, ambition, the great attraction of the big city of New York to young people all over the United States, and the way that each (especially young) person has to learn for herself or himself the age-old lessons of how the world works.
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