Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

A waitress has her first taste of adulthood

Tess, a recent college graduate, flees an unhappy family life and comes to New York City. She finds an apartment in Brooklyn, and based on her personality, not her experience, gets a highly sought after job as a backwaiter in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive restaurants. Waitressing in this rarified setting is physically and mentally demanding, and at first,Tess can’t cope. Little by little, she learns, with the help of Simone, the cultured server who educates Tess in the finer points of wine and oysters, and Jake, the brooding Heathcliffy bartender, who teaches her about sexual desire. Jake and Simone, however, apparently have a much deeper relationship with each other than either could have or want to have with Tess. Tess is determined to change that.

There’s something compelling about the Bildungsroman. This one reminded me of Love Me Back, another restaurant novel – the na├»ve young heroine and her fine mind getting put through a fast paced thresher, all in pursuit of making a buck and serving up hash. The seduction of the partying, the drug abuse. How the terrifyingly unfamiliar becomes second nature and how a team is forged. Love Me Back was a better constructed novel, however, as it actually told a story. Sweetbitter is the classic case of Vivian Gornick’s the situation not the story. The situation is intriguing – which is why I was sucked in the first hundred pages. But after the heady rush of the beginning I wondered – now what? Now what turned out to be more of the same. The prose is great, although the narrator takes herself and her backwaiting gig a mite seriously at times. I enjoyed the structure, which is that of the four seasons.

The reason why the story spins its wheel is because the three main characters are incompletely realized. Simone, the mentor, speaks in philosophically dense paragraphs that more often come off as silly. Another problem with Simone’s educational monologues is that food, in some aspects, like many fashionable things, is inherently trivial. The ancient Greeks did not hand down recipes. There are too many forgettable characters so the reader’s emotional reactions to their problems are muted. The presumed engine of the plot, the love story between the narrator and laconic Jake, naturally, like all love stories, has low stakes attached to it. Part of the plot is her advancement from back waiter to server – another low stakes mechanism. A reoccurring crisis is that there are never enough bar cloths.

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