'Sweetbitter' Sings With Innocence And ExperienceStephanie Danler's new novel follows a young woman finding herself in the New York City restaurant world. It's voluptuous, ripeness on the verge of rot — but anything more tasteful wouldn't do.
For Keats, joy was a grape bursting in the mouth: sudden, flooding, and sweet. And, of course, impermanent. Food and feeling are natural partners; this debut novel, set in a Manhattan restaurant, is a feast of both.
"Sweetbitter" is an epithet of Eros first used by Sappho, poet laureate of the literature of longing. In the fragment that gave Stephanie Danler her book's title, Sappho calls Eros limb-loosening, sweetbitter, the one who can't be fought. Sappho's fragments are fevers of desire and limbo, and it's that same space of almost unbearable want that Sweetbitter occupies: Wanting a place, wanting a person, wanting a life.
Tess moves to New York from a place of "dirt roads between desiccated fields," a place "so small so small you couldn't find it on a generous map." But, the narrator writes, "Let's say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open."
New York is "the one place large enough to hold so much unbridled, unfocused desire." She loves it: the rats, the snow, the Williamsburg Bridge, the onset of autumn when the air tastes of "steel knives and filtered water."
"It is ludicrous for anyone to live here," she thinks, at the same time she thinks, "I can never leave."
Tess is a backwaiter in a restaurant, and falls into the small and large dramas of restaurant life. She is infatuated with the bad-boy bartender, Jake, and his friend, older, sophisticated Simone. Tess is desperately, stupidly young, and thus completely recognizable: "I would get tattoos of the bruises," she thinks earnestly after rough sex with Jake, who is the exactly the kind of horrible Kierkegaard-reading, chain-smoking person you fall for when you're 22 (I say this from the wise height of my mid-twenties). Sweetbitter is a young person's novel, full of the joyful pain that comes from almost-having, a feeling like happiness that would disperse if the object were actually caught.
Like her sexual awakening, Tess's culinary enlightenment is vivid and exquisite: "So — some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning," Tess thinks the first time she tastes an heirloom tomato. In truffle season, the restaurant smells of "Freshly tilled earth, fields of manure, the forest floor after rain. I smelled berries, upheaval, mold, sheets sweated through a thousand times. Absolute sex."
The narrator describes the five tastes: sour, salt, sweet, bitter, and a fifth: "Umami: uni, or sea urchin, anchovies, Parmesan, dry-aged beef with a casing of mold. It's glutamate. Nothing is a mystery anymore. They make MSG to mimic it. It's the taste of ripeness about to ferment. Initially, it serves as a warning. But after a familiarity develops, after you learn its name, that precipice of rot becomes the only flavor worth pursuing, the only line worth testing."
When people mention purple writing, they mean something saturated and embarrassing: something that tries too hard, wants too much, doesn't play it cool. This is a book that tries hard, really hard in a way that is tempting to dismiss; it is voluptuous writing, ripe approaching "the precipice of rot." It balances on the edge of too much, too strong, too sentimental, too dramatic, too overdrawn or overwritten. But it works, because that is what it feels like to be young and in a big city: like it's too much, and at the same time not nearly enough. And maybe that earnest fullness of feeling, that wild wanting, that precipice of too much, is the only line worth testing. Maybe anything less ambitious, anything more tasteful or restrained, would just miss the point.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.