sweetbitter by stephanie danler
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
"TASTE, Chef said, is all about balance. The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter. Now your tongue is coded. A certain connoisseurship of taste, a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you would do the sweet."
Sweetbitter is Stephanie Danler's fictional debut with autobiographical elements, following the main character, Tess, as she begins work as a backwaiter in a New York City restaurant.
The novel begins sharing the beauty of the food, the wine and the production that is a busy Manhattan restaurant. It describes the way the staff work together like clockwork, as if they have done this all of their lives, later meeting post-shift for drug-fueled nights full of socialization and occasional debauchery. You witness Tess - the newcomer and the outsider - as she navigates her way through the complex relationships of this tight-knit group, while trying to figure out her own life along the way. As you delve deeper into the novel, the story gets harder and grittier, slowly exposing the realities of life as a NYC restaurant worker.
The book is a piece of art. I found myself physically experiencing it; my hands getting clammy through the busy rush-period and becoming lightheaded with Tess as she fell into a narcotic spin - which, as someone who has never touched drugs, it felt like the closest I will ever come to experiencing their effects. The perfect blend of poetry and narrative, elegant and vibrant, yet as gritty as a novel in this genre can get, Danler takes the reader on an unapologetic journey through the restaurant world, and there was no way I could fault it.
I had extremely high expectations of Sweetbitter, and was still left so pleasantly surprised. Despite mixed reviews, it is some of the best contemporary writing I have come across. I took forever to read it because I wanted to read everything twice, and absorb the literary beauty one word at a time. This is one of the only times I have finished a book, and immediately had the desire to flip it over and start again.
Please read it. All the stars.