Stephanie Danler’s sensual debut novel “Sweetbitter” follows an eager and impressionable young woman’s first year in the Manhattan restaurant business. Danler appears Friday, June 3, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
When you’re 22, everything tastes new. Tess, the first-person narrator of Stephanie Danler’s fine debut novel “Sweetbitter,” (Knopf, 356 pp., $25) tells us in the book’s opening pages that she was born at that age — “in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. 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, radios turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.”
And with that, we’re off; down a sometimes breathtaking, sometimes sordid and always beautifully written rabbit hole of food and drugs and sex and up-all-night and flavors and, eventually, another beginning. Tess, who’s pretty and eager to learn, takes a job in a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant as a “backwaiter.” (This, and many other terms foreign to those without recent restaurant experience, is explained; she’s basically a waiter’s assistant.) She slips quickly into the tight-knit world of the restaurant, where everyone wears the someplace-else that they came from like a sweater they’d like to slip off.
“Sweetbitter” feels like an updated, female take on Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” (it’s not for nothing that McInerney’s glowing blurb is prominently featured on the book’s back cover), but with a sensual additional layer: In this coming-of-age tale, the sense Tess is developing is that of taste, with the book blooming with descriptions that you can feel on your tongue: Some tomatoes “tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning.” A cheese tastes “like butter but dirtier”; cheap beer is “barely fermented, yeasty water.” By contrast, a glass of Champagne at the restaurant “surged like an electrical current. My lips like I kissed sparks.”
The author of “Sweetbitter” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, June 3, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
The book, taking place over Tess’ first year in New York (divided into four sections, with the seasons), doesn’t have a great deal of plot, and doesn’t need to. Tess becomes enamored with Jake, the aloof, charismatic bartender who “drank like he was the only person who understood beer.” (He could, says Tess, in words understood by anyone who’s ever been fascinated by an enigma, “turn himself off like a switch and I stood in the dark, waiting.”) Simone, a sophisticated server at the restaurant who tutors Tess in the ways of wine, completes the novel’s romantic triangle — one that takes a little too much time to resolve itself.
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But that doesn’t matter: “Sweetbitter” isn’t a book you read for its plot, but for the way Danler — in language that often approaches stream-of-consciousness — creates a time, a place, a feeling. This Manhattan, where the Starbucks smells like urine and the air “tasted of steel knives,” isn’t remotely prettified or sentimentalized — but you can see how, for a young woman desperate for experiences, it’s a place of tough magic. We spend our time in this book inside Tess’ head; watching as she stumbles and glides, soars on cocaine or too much wine, awakens to cold light and a harsh taste in her mouth and a feeling of being, perhaps, just a little bit older.
“I thought that once I got to this city nothing could ever catch up with me because I could remake my life daily,” Tess muses, near the book’s end. “Once that had made me feel infinite. Now I was certain I would never learn. Being remade was the same thing as being constantly undone.”