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Sweetbitter

Sweetbitter

A Book Review

Written by Ashley Hutchinson

 

The bittersweet and familiar scent of young adulthood, captured perfectly in the microcosm of a restaurant. Stephanie Danler creates a vivid world in which many young New Yorkers can implant themselves, see a piece of their struggle reflected in the actions of Tess, the 22 year old protagonist of the book.

My captivation in the subject matter was selfish. I saw myself in Tess’s wide-eyed, midwestern view of the now decayed glamour of New York City (this protagonist was even from Ohio, my native land, wedged between this and that state). I myself noticed the grit and dirt of the city, and hoped--prayed--to be a part of it. And in doing so, somehow, became myself through my clear and honest realization of who I would never be.

Tess’s thoughtful and poetic view of the restaurant’s ecosystem captured a snapshot of what goes on behind the scenes of your favorite haunts. The showmanship of the endeavor, the creation of a different world for the guests (“guests, not customers,” as Danler points out). The owner of the book’s restaurant--based loosely off the Union Square Cafe now located on 19th street in New York City--says, with a flourish, “Any business transaction--actually any life transaction--is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel...we are creating the world as it should be. We don’t have to pay any attention to how it is.”

In fact that is what it’s like, waiting on other people. Always waiting. There’s a disassociation with the waiter and pedestrian life. There is a “backstage” at a restaurant, where the staff hydrates, curses, trips, caffienates--a smooth underbelly that goes completely unnoticed. There are seniors and juniors, “new girls”, Front of house verses kitchen verses office, an entire world that is meant to remain unseen and to allow the guests to be transported to wherever the staff chooses to take you.  

And while all of these 9-5 employees eat their dinner at a reasonable hour, Danler makes the observation that the world accommodates that schedule: the “stable” job that you come home from. Concerts, fairs, flea markets, shops, are all open on weekends. The restaurant staff then is left with the wee hours of the night or morning, all to themselves: so little is left for them, so they get “greedy” starting at 1 o’clock in the morning.

It’s a different lifestyle, playing the background in someone else’s story, as Danler and Tess put it. However that is not to mean that the lifestyle isn’t exciting. Perhaps the trouble that Tess often finds herself in is a byproduct of the love she feels for the night, for the pulsating vein of the restaurant and it’s fast paced environment. It is the epitome of a young person’s game: action, more action, food, drink and pleasure. The whole book is tinged with sensuality and poor decisions and euphoric highs and extreme sexual tension. It includes the wide array of relationships you conjure in your young adult life--the boy that you allow to mistreat you because it feels so good, those friends you never quite feel like you are friends with, the role models you view as completely untouchable and flawless. These relationships are felt so strongly and yet go out like a flame--the people you work with. There’s a bond unlike any other. And our Tess talks about little else. It was never indicated that she might have other friends. The restaurant consumes her.

There is absolutely something to gain from Tess’s journey, ultimately it tracks the graceful floundering of young people. How it feels to become so invested in an idea, so in love with the world that it hurts. Everything hurts. I think everyone who has ever felt lost would find solace in this marvelous retelling of a coming of age novel. Anyone who has ever become distracted, gazing out into the windows of storefronts and open french doors to the murmuring pubs and bustling restaurants in the city. This book will feel hot and resonant, and I beg you, please read it.

 

 

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