The past couple of years have been heady times for literary newcomers, with an atypically generous number receiving eye-opening advances from publishers. Enter Stephanie Danler, one of the more recent beneficiaries of this largesse. As the story goes, she approached a Penguin Random House editor eating lunch at the restaurant where she waited tables and talked to him about her manuscript.
The story of a waitress plucked from obscurity and launched into stardom is an old, clichéd tale, yet Danler’s novel is anything but. Instead, “Sweetbitter” is small but impressively polished, the rare much-hyped book that lives up to its billing: endearing yet unsentimental, smart and fun, a bildungsroman mercifully free of cliché.
The saga takes place over four seasons, with a section for each, and begins when our narrator, Tess, recalls the time in her life when she traipsed the well-trodden path of untold numbers of young people who move to New York to follow their dreams.
All we know of Tess’s past is that she had a “mother who drove off before [Tess] could open her eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house’’ in a town of “dirt roads between dessicated fields.’’
Unlike her contemporaries looking for success as writers, actors, or artists or for adventure in the big city, Tess seeks escape — she’s not precisely sure from what — and some kind of transformation.
On her first and only job interview at a restaurant in Union Square, she is seized by a vision of a woman in a camel-hair coat beset by shopping bags. “That was the way the future came to me,” she muses, as a wide-eyed, directionless 22-year-old would.
Once Tess starts working at the restaurant, she is known simply as New Girl. Her official title is that of “backwaiter”; she answers to everybody. And with good reason. While she has some experience as a server at a coffee shop she is a novice in the world of fine dining, which gives Danler an opportunity to offer us a cook’s tour of the fascinating backstage machinations of a high-end restaurant.
Tess’s education also provides many opportunities for her to reflect on the nature of service, its mental and physical spoils and tolls, all of which she welcomes in her all-consuming desire to become someone else. Like those of Jane Eyre or the unnamed protagonist of “In the Cage,” Henry James’s novella of telegraphy, these philosophical turns are lyrical, insightful, and funny.
“Sometimes I saw all of service condensed, as if I had only worked one night that stretched out over the months,” one chapter begins. “I looped the dining room in sweeping, elongated arcs, both my biceps and my wrists tense. I saw myself without a time lapse, the images still and laid on top of each other. All the plates of filet mignon of tuna streamlined into its essential form: the filet mignon of tuna, lapidary. All the napkins I ever folded in a totemic monument.”
The way Tess sees herself and the world around her proves equally compelling. Like Reno, the similarly situated protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers,” Tess exists in the multidimensional psychic space occupied by the young and beautiful; she sees herself at once through her own eyes and through the eyes of her many admirers.
The world is similarly blessed. In a state of mind where napkins become monuments, late afternoon walks can provide “ambrosial twilight tumbled off the cliff-sides of buildings, pooling on sidewalks.”
She also views her coworkers in a kind of nearly heroic light, projecting great wisdom onto 30-somethings muddling through life. Most central to the story are Simone, the restaurant’s star waitress, and a hunky, tattooed bartender named Jake. Jake and Simone grew up together on Cape Cod under strange circumstances and remain mysteriously close — just how close drives much of the plot. Is Simone’s extensive tutelage well-intentioned? Will Jake succumb to Tess’s clumsy advances?
The way these questions play out, while motivating the reader to plow through “Sweetbitter” at lightning speed, takes a back seat to the novel’s main purpose: a total immersion in what it’s like to be young and hungry.
This is to say nothing of food. Danler lards the book with endless descriptions of meals and wine that often stand in for something else altogether. A snack with Jake in the walk-in freezer becomes a turgid encounter choked with sexy double-entendres. “They look so filthy,” Tess whispers, eyeing the oysters Jake proffers. “Take it quickly,” Jake urges. In Danler’s hands, the scene is funny, erotic, and, shockingly, not at all cheesy.
In a sense, “Sweetbitter” is a chronicle of Tess’s ever-expanding palate, a collection of tasting notes that describe everything from chanterelle omelets to loneliness to rough sex to too many bumps of cocaine. The reader is sure to gasp along with each new discovery until she has finished and is left wanting more. It’s a good thing Knopf has already signed Danler for another book.
By Stephanie Danler
Knopf, 356 pp., $25
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor in Chicago. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org