Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler --a review

Like The Devil Wears Prada and Debt and other books about coming of age in New York, this debut novel introduces us to Tess, who is a fish out of water in her sundress and cardigan, trying to bluff her way through an interview when she’s way over her head. We like her, and we enjoy being educated along with her, introduced to the nuances of taste—you will develop a palate—and the intricacies of food service where meals are works of art and presentations like little pieces of theater. We also love the vision she has of her New York self—a sophisticated, better-dressed, better paid version of herself who lives a life filled with art openings and concerts and love and excitement. We KNOW that vision because we’ve all had a version of it. 

Tess is an “Everywoman” who is relatable, not just to Millennials, but also to anyone who ever followed a dream from a dusty town where the residents were obsessed with football and church to New York or Los Angeles, or any other glittering metropolis where the possibilities seem limitless and even the reality is better than the reality left behind. When she first arrives in town, it seems like she’s always being wrong-footed and judged, and her thoughts about the people she meets are bemused and sensible and endearing. She is an OUTSIDER who wants to be an INSIDER in the worst way and if there are few readers alive who can’t remember that feeling, even if they won’t admit it. When she literally “earns her stripes” (the servers all wear striped shirts while the back waiters wear white button-downs), we’re pleased for her.

We gradually get to know the other people who work in the restaurant—beautiful SASHA who could be a model except he’s so short and who loves water-melon flavored Smirnoff; tyrannical CHEF who insists on silence in the kitchen because “it’s church.” But mostly we, like Tess, are fascinated by Simone and Jake, who aren’t a couple but who are so clearly bonded, so clearly on each other’s wave-length that we wonder what is up with them.

Some of the best scenes in the book are the late nights at the bar after the restaurant closes with the gossip and the backbiting and the showing off and the preening and the courting.  Some of those segments could be lifted right from the book and they’d be entertaining. The author also often includes interludes that are nothing but overlapping dialogue as the work of the restaurant gets done. 
The foodie stuff is openly sensual, from the silky walnuts to the cheese that tastes like butter, only dirtier. We’re reminded of movies like Tampopo and Babette's Feast and Big Night and Chef and Mostly Martha--stories that are about love and family and loneliness and strangers who become friends. 

It's frankly sensual in its exploration of tastes. There’s not a lot of plot here—the story is tied together by the seasons and by Tess’ growth as a connoisseur of a server—and readers won't really care they'll be so caught up in the world. This is a great book for lovers of food and  romance and character-driven stories.

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