Stephanie Danler’s first novel, “Sweetbitter,” about a young woman in New York City’s restaurant world, is going to make a lot of people hungry. It did for me, at any rate. My copy, I notice, has some grease stains in it, a few red pepper flakes, a stubby bit of mint.
“Sweetbitter” will be consumed with special avidity by young food people — sommeliers, cheesemakers, sous chefs, managers, pastry wizards — who dream of making it in the big city, or at least of making it by big-city standards.
It’s an unpretentious, truth-dealing, summer-weight novel — bought by Knopf in an attention-grabbing six-figure deal — that reads like a letter home from a self-deprecating friend. In this case, that friend is named Tess, like Thomas Hardy’s heroine and Melanie Griffith’s striving secretary in “Working Girl.”
This Tess is 22 when she escapes her unnamed hometown and its “twin pillars of football and church” and drives into Manhattan. “Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at 7 a.m.,” she says, “with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.”
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Thanks to her poise and friendly good looks, Tess finds a job as an apprentice server at a restaurant that’s clearly modeled after Union Square Cafe, one of Manhattan’s best. (The author has worked at Union Square Cafe and at another cheerful restaurant, Buvette.) She finds a scuzzy apartment in a cheap section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Tess falls deeply into her work and feels the city begin to unfold for her. Danler is a sensitive observer of the almost wartime camaraderie among workers at a restaurant that’s humming at full capacity, of the exhaustion, of the postshift drinking in dive bars until dawn, of the sex and other stimulants — the biggest one simply being young and alive and open to the animal and intellectual possibilities that New York City offers.
Once upon a time, this sort of aspirational, young person’s novel was written about writers and artists. Food workers are climbing the status ladder. Now these novels are about chefs or even, in this case, servers. This book has an onrushing “Bright Lights, Big City” vibe and falls into an emerging genre you might call Bright Lights, Small Plates.
A restaurant, like a platoon in a war novel, allows a writer to deploy a large cast with relative ease. In “Sweetbitter” we meet a handsome if hard-bitten young bartender (“He drank like he was the only person who understood beer”); an enigmatic female head server who is Tess’ mentor and tormentor; a harried chef; a manager who does more than ogle his favorite female employees. None feel like stereotypes.
A subtle sense of melancholy hangs over these men and women. They’re happy to be where they are; in fact, they feel chosen. But they’re nearly all here because of other dreams that were thwarted. They’re failed poets or academics. Tess had hoped to be a photographer.
This novel, which reads a bit like a food world version of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep,” gets off to a bad start. You notice that its four sections are named after the seasons, as if they were George Winston albums. At the beginning there are gimmicky interpolated sections about things like the nature of sweet versus sour. You fear you may be headed into a genre fiction tunnel of love.
Those fears are quickly dispelled. Danler is a gifted commenter (chilly autumn air in Manhattan “tasted of steel knives and filtered water”) on many things, class especially. An awareness of privilege runs through this novel like a tendon. “If you’re good at this job,” she asks, “what exactly are you good at?”
“Sweetbitter” grows darker than you might expect, in terms of where Tess’ desires lead her. It’s a book about hunger of every variety, even the sort that can disturb you and make you sometimes ask yourself, as does Tess, “Was I a monster or was this what it felt like to be a person?”