Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Published by Knopf (May 24, 2016)
368 pages
Kindle Edition
Advance reading copy provided by the publisher
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THIS BOOK. I recognize that I may have been influenced by my years of experience in the restaurant industry during a time when I was about the same age as Tess, the novel's main character, but that fact cannot possibly be the sole reason I felt so hooked by this remarkable debut. 

I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.

Maybe it comes from the fact that the author admits that she has struggled with a disconnection from family and has worked to build her own community of individuals with whom she connects; restaurants, at least those that are structured in the manner in which Danler has experienced them, are very much like being within a unique and diverse family environment. 

I wanted to say, My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t know.

Consequently, similar to those individuals in our biological families, members of a restaurant (or any other construct) family have the ability to inflict a hurt that is just as painful; relationships are always complicated and the author provides beautiful insight into that magnetic space that is created when we choose to become vulnerable, even when the outcome is not what we might have hoped.

This is what happens when the body anticipates a wound. It steels itself. A pliable mind twists vainly to avoid the laws of logic, all judgments, all conclusions, if only for a few seconds longer.

In addition to the usual restaurant lingo, with which I'm already familiar (there are some things about working in a restaurant that I'll never forget), I loved the descriptions of the wines and unique delicacies as Tess learns from one of the most knowledgeable and experienced servers in the city; one who holds all the power.

She cut me a piece of the cheese and handed it to me - “The Dorset,” she said - and it tasted like butter but dirtier, and maybe like the chanterelles she kept touching. She handed me a grape and when I bit it I found the seeds with my tongue and moved them to the side, spit them into my hand. I saw purple vines fattening in the sun.

There are also a few sections, sprinkled throughout the novel, of conversation snippets that are so wonderfully accurate within the context of a restaurant's FOH (front-of-the-house) staff; it provides readers a glimpse of the noise and chaos that goes on behind the scenes while we sit, unaware, in our seats and wait to be served.

‘Those flowers are wilting already.
’It’s just my usual five o’clock abyss.’
’And that guy has a girlfriend.’
’God, they should make a reality show here.’
’When will I stop being so moved?’
’Turns out there are a million theories on purgatory.’
’Yeah, Scott put in his notice - Chef is livid.’

Whether you have intimate knowledge of the restaurant industry really matters not; this is a brilliant read on so many levels and, in my humble opinion, it is definitely worth the attention that it has received in the publishing world. Some time has passed since I read a book that I could not put down and I'm thankful to have discovered this one; take it with you on a trip this summer and forget about everything else.

 

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