Sweetbitter | Stephanie Danler
This is another highly anticipated book for 2016. But, unlike The Girls (of which I was not impressed), Sweetbitter drew me in and I tore through it in a day. (It didn't hurt that I was stuck in an airport/airplane during most of it... but I digress).
Sweetbitter jumps right into the plot with our main character, Tess, fleeing her old life to start anew in New York. "Let's say I was born in late June 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at 7 a. m." We gather that she's both running from her past and running toward whatever future she can find in on the East Coast. She gets her wish in the form of being a busboy... or "backwaiter" in the fanciest restaurant in New York. She seems to know nothing about fine dining, but quickly assimilates into to life within the restaurant bubble in a haze of developing a palate, after work drinks, drugs in the bathroom, and friendships in place of family. The plot centers around her relationship with the head server, Simone, and Simone's childhood friend/bartender Jake. Tess is consistently trying to find herself and often gets shot down because she's too young, too dumb, too pretty, too nice, and readers are taken through her journey of finding her place in a setting that she never knew she'd want so badly to be a part of.
Some of the criticism I heard about this book is that it's no Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, that the characters are flimsy, and that it's cliche. Personally, I could not care less about all of that. Stephanie Danler can write and the book is well done. I did find the characters to be flimsy, but honestly I think that added to the narrative from our 22 year old protagonist. I can tell that the author does have experience in fine dining (either as a "guest" or as a server), which gave an authentic feel of being in that restaurant bubble.
I recommend this book, but it comes with a big caveat. My early 20's were very similar to Tess'- except for the hard drugs. I also moved to a new city halfway across the country in the summer of 2006 and started working at a restaurant based on someone telling me that it was the best sports bar in the city. So not exactly fine dining and Pouilly-Fuisse, I do definitely relate to relationships that can exist within that setting. I'm also not from New York and enjoyed the glimpse into this world that Danler provided, but I wouldn't be able to tell if it was off the mark.
Overall, a wonderful debut book. Likely not worth all of the hype (they rarely are), but those with restaurant experience will enjoy.