Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

We always just miss New York. I watched it with this neighborhood. When I moved here everyone was mourning the SoHo of the seventies, Tribeca of the eighties, and already ringing the death knell for the East Village. Now people romanticize the Alphabet City of Jonathan Larson. We all walk in a cloud of mourning for the New York that just disappeared. 
Danler's Sweetbitter takes on the cliché of the blonde (I assume she's blonde...I don't actually know) ingenue coming to the Big City to Make it. I'm not sure she does much with it, but it's an enjoyable read. Tess moves to New York from middle America at twenty-two, rents a dingy room in Williamsburg, and gets a job as a backwaiter at a Union Square restaurant. She stays out late, does a lot of drugs (like really a lot...seemingly too much to be a functional human), sleeps with her colleagues, and falls for the bad boy bartender.

The two most engaging characters in the novel are New York and the restaurant where Tess works (a thinly veiled fictionalization of Union Square Cafe where Danler herself worked upon arriving in the city). Her New York is the big, roiling exciting mess that the city presents to all twenty-somethings. As she walks across the Williamsburg Bridge to a solitary lunch in Chinatown on Christmas day, Tess thinks: "It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave." That duality comes across well in the book and captures what it felt like (minus the drugs and the late nights) to live here, doing an impossibly demanding job for no money, figuring out what it meant to be an adult: at once thrilling and terrifying.

The elite food service world, of which I know next to nothing, comes across as cutthroat and addictive, and Danler immerses us completely in its chaos. She does dialogue well, and there are sections that are just extended, unattributed snippets of conversations that submerge you in Tess' new universe in all its glory.

Tess herself, unfortunately, is pretty awful. So are basically all the other human characters. They're all young and self-centered (or old and self-centered), and their inability to acknowledge a world outside of their own experience (or even outside of the confines of their restaurant) is troubling. I realize that may be an authentic representation of what it is to be twenty-two, but it was still hard to read. Tess' romantic entanglements are even harder to swallow and her obsession with the prototypical bad boy who (spoiler alert) doesn't change for her is a snooze.

This was a fun look into a side of New York that I knew nothing about, and the food descriptions made me hungry, but the characters were disappointing at best.

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