Stephanie Danler

Published by Oneworld UK 2 June/ Knopf US 25 May 2016

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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‘ “You,” she said. She grabbed my wrist and pressed two fingers onto me as if taking my pulse and I stopped breathing. “I know you. I remember you from my youth. You contain multitudes. There is a crush of experience coursing by you. And you want to take every experience on the pulse.”’

Meet Tess, the twenty-two-year-old narrator (and container of multitudes) of Sweetbitter, one of the season’s noisiest publishing events. And also meet the high-flown romantic style of its author, Stephanie Danler, whose six-figure, two-book deal arose, sensationally, from her approaching a publisher eating in the restaurant where she waited tables in New York (an occupation Danler shares with Tess).

Labeled one of those ‘books to watch’ in 2016, Sweetbitter clearly needs to make quite an impression to live up to the hype that precedes it. And as a portrait of the personnel behind a renowned Manhattan restaurant (easily recognizable as the beloved Union Square Café, where Danler worked for a while), the novel does successfully conjure up a world. Thankfully, it delivers no horror stories of behind the scenes activity, although there are some nasty flies and a repulsive drain. Instead, the food and drinks, are described rhapsodically, while the team preparing and delivering them is characterized as a largely young, hungry, sexy, exhausted family subsisting on booze, coke, Xanax and Adderall.

Tess, hailing from a backwater and having grown up motherless, with a father who ignored, among other things, birthdays and Halloween, is the classic ingénue – needy, innocent, ignorant about ingredients, service, viticulture, people and sex. But she’s going to learn.

Her mentor in matters gustatory, quoted above, is Simone, a woman/waiter in her thirties whose knowledge of flavour and wine is encyclopedic. In matters of the flesh, Tess’s sentimental education will come at the hands (also lips, teeth, etc) of Jake, whose long relationship with Simone dates back to their childhood. Simone is stern but caring. Jake is promiscuous and unreadable. And Tess is as vulnerable as an exposed heart.

Danler’s (unintentionally) tragi-comic novel is a mood piece, an immersion into lifestyle, occupation, sensory overload and New York City through the seasons. It’s also a smart meld of sexy subjects within a classic come-of-age framework, written in a particular kind of intense, self-consciously semi-poetic prose – ‘The lilacs smelled like brevity. They know how to arrive and how to exit.’

Bittersweet and as vainglorious as any young, first-heartbreak, ’I Will Survive’ scenario could be, the book matches in confidence and self-belief its author’s pitch to the dining publisher. While it lacks the plot structure and accessibility of a true mainstream big-hitter, its straight-faced commitment to the sensual high notes – from sea urchins to sexual obsession – will assure plenty of attention. Jaded palates, however, might be left feeling a little undernourished.

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