“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge…” This is how we meet unforgettable Tess, the 22-year-old at the heart of this stunning debut. Shot like a bullet from a mundane past, she’s come to New York to escape the provincial, to take on her destiny. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on and off duty. Her appetites are awakened, for food, wine, knowledge and experience; and she’s pulled into the thrall of two other servers–a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman whose connection to both young lovers is murky, sensual, and overpowering. These two will prove to be Tess’s hardest lesson of all. Sweetbitter is a story about discovery, enchantment, and the power of what remains after disillusionment.
I had high hopes for this book – it got glowing reviews left and right, and I got the impression it was a fictional Kitchen Confidential for waiters. The first half kind of reads like that but it soon peters out into nothingness.
The strong start: a young woman arrives in New York and falls into a restaurant job, learning how to be a back waiter with a motley group of coworkers. I used to sling coffee so the controlled chaos that erupts when the health inspector shows up rings true. Don’t touch the fridges! Throw everything out! I especially like a scene where Tess is trying to have a quiet lunch but the guy next to her keeps trying to strike up a conversation.
“What are you reading?”
“Okay.” I folded my hands. “I know it’s quiet at your job. You sit in silence at your computer and when you do talk nobody listens to you, so I understand the need to impose yourself on whatever docile-looking female you find yourself in front of, but let me tell you about my job. It’s loud. I lose my voice I talk so much. And people look at me, and they stop me, pretending they know me, they say, Let me guess, are you French, and I shake my head and smile and they say, Are you Swedish? And I shake my head and smile and so on. But this is my day off. I just want quiet. If you want someone to put up with you, may I suggest your waitress because that is lit-ter-ally what you’re paying her to do right now.”
“So you’re sassy, huh?”
(Side note – guys, when a gal tells you to fuck off take it seriously, k? We deal with enough shit.)
Anywho, the language is probably what got Sweetbitter all the advance buzz.
SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses. The mouth-coating sugars in milk. Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxicated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in. We’ve tamed, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.
So if language is your thing you’ll be in love. But if you’re like me and would rather more plot things fall flat around 50% and never pick up again. The story gets away from the restaurant and into the nitty gritty of relationships. Yes, those two people are weird. No, I don’t care about them. Wow, that’s a lot of drugs. And so on.
So let’s chalk this one up as a disappointment with flashes of sentence-level beauty.