“I wanted to say, My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t know.”
One of the most appealing things about Sweetbitter is that the sumpuous details about working in a restaurant and the descriptions about what it’s like to be young and new in New York City are so good they’re almost pornographic. I don’t know if Stephanie Danler has ever worked in a restaurant and neither have I but I did marry a chef and I’ve harbored a fascination-from-afar for a while, so I can attest that her ability to capture the details of how a restaurant operates and the staff that makes a service go down are fairly impeccable. From her author photo and description it is clear that Danler has definitely been young and in New York, and that is something I can also relate to–even if not in the same way that Tess, our narrator can.
It’s an exciting city. It fills you up even as it terrifies you. It’s difficult to find a place in New York and it’s difficult to really belong, to find a rhythm. That’s where Tess is when we first meet her, as she drives to New York City and an apartment in Brooklyn to start her life over. She gets a job at an unnamed restaurant near Union Square that’s supposed to be the best in New York. How? It’s not quite clear. She doesn’t have experience and she doesn’t even do particularly well in the interview. The best we can tell is that she has an ineffable quality this restaurant looks for in its staff, which they call the ‘fifty-one percent.’ Why? Because according to them, 49% of being a server is mechanical. You could teach anyone to do it: memorize the specials, keep the water glasses filled, look professional and clean, etc. The other 51% can’t be taught. Someone either has it or doesn’t. For this restaurant, it means a certain degree of caring about the customer (sorry, the ‘guest’) so you treat them like a human being and not just another table to turn. It means being reasonably attractive in all the ways upper-middle-class New Yorker elite will find appealing. It means being able to talk about wine and museums and Europe and opera in conversational tones–or at least being able to fake it. When Tess is hired as a backwaiter, we’re meant to believe that the manager sees the potential for all this in her.
In practice, though, Tess immediately falls for the bad-boy bartender, Jake, who has a weird relationship with the most senior server, Simone. Even though everyone warns her off she keeps pursuing him, even after Simone takes her under her wing to teach her everything she knows about wine and being a great server. And in the meantime Tess and her coworkers spend their nights going out and getting hammered, doing lines of coke in bathroom stalls, then getting through their shifts by relying on ‘treats’ of various types (prescription drugs to stave off either a hangover or nerves for a busy service).
Throughout, people keep telling Tess that she’s got so much promise as a server and as a person. That while she’s young and having fun right now, she’s relying on being pretty and should figure out who she is before she loses herself. The problem is that we never get to see whatever it is these other people are seeing. We see very few glimpses of Tess being a competent server–instead we get long passages about her being terrible at food-running, falling down the stairs with plates of food, and screwing up in all manner of ways. All we see is the shame spiral, not the potential she’s wasting.
A great part of this is because Tess herself is narrating and she’s an unreliable narrator at best. She does not want us to know much about her so she refuses to let us get very close. We get vague references to her growing up without a mother but no more family history. We don’t know what she ran from to come to New York or why. We don’t know her hopes and dreams, and ultimately we know that she doesn’t either. So is it a narrative trick that we can’t see what everyone else sees in Tess (because she herself can’t see it?), or is it a massive failing of Danler’s? Regardless, it’s incredibly frustrating, and it makes the experience of reading Sweetbitter feel hollow. It also means that the central love triangle that so much of the novel pivots around fails to illicit much of a response.