Wednesday, August 24, 2016

SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

This novel chronicles a year in the life of 22-year-old Tess, whose name is not revealed until she is voted by her fellow employees as the person you’d most like to get stuck in an elevator with.  Without even enough cash to pay highway tolls, Tess arrives in New York and lands a job as a backwaiter at a tony restaurant.  As the “new girl,” she struggles to find her niche there among the more seasoned staff and develops a crush on Jake, the handsome and elusive bartender, whose relationship with Tess’s mentor, Simone, dates back to childhood and may or may not be sexual.  Burning the candle at both ends, Tess finds herself in a vicious cycle of drugs and alcohol, and I’m not sure how she is alert enough at work to learn about French wine regions.  This is what I would call an ensemble novel, and it’s the first one I’ve read since Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End in which the characters all work together.  It’s not about family per se, but then sometimes the workplace becomes a surrogate family.  From the beginning we know that Tess does not have a plan for her future.  She’s basically treading water, but then the author makes the point that restaurant workers are mostly young and eventually move on.  Simone is particularly an enigma.  She’s in her 30s, for one thing, but she takes Tess under her wing while warning her to stay away from Jake.  Tess is na├»ve but a quick study, except when it comes to matters of the heart.  Tess grew up without a mother, and Simone fills that void to a degree.  Simone may have already honed her maternal skills with Jake, but she becomes Henry Higgins to Tess’s Eliza Doolittle, and then the question is whether the student’s skills will surpass those of the professor.

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