Published: May 24, 2016
A lush, raw, thrilling novel of the senses about a year in the life of a uniquely beguiling young woman, set in the wild, alluring world of a famous downtown New York restaurant.
“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge…”
This is how we meet unforgettable Tess, the twenty-two-year-old at the heart of this stunning first novel. Shot from a mundane, provincial past, she’s come to New York to look for a life she can’t define, except as a burning drive to become someone, to belong somewhere. 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 duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardor.
These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s hardest lesson of all. Sweetbitter is a story of discovery, enchantment, and the power of what remains after disillusionment.
I didn’t think I would like this book but the longer I listened, the more I changed my mind.
Tess leaves home, and I don’t think we know where “home” was originally, and goes to New York City to begin a new life. She gets a job at an old Union Square restaurant as a “backwaiter” and is trained about which wines come from which grapes and why flowers are important to wines. She learns which foods go best with each wine and how to persuade a “guest” to purchase a more expensive bottles and she has to figure out her place in a group of wait staff, bartenders, servers and chefs who’ve been working together for years.
She falls hard for Jake, one of the bartenders, and who is troubled but gorgeous and shares an indecipherably close platonic intimacy with Simone. To me, his description left a lot to be desired but I guess it’s true that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Tess says in one place that Jake always had dirty fingernails and didn’t change his underwear for days. Not exactly my idea of a dreamboat.
Soon Jake and Tess fall into a fevered fling, despite the older woman’s disapproval. The relationship seems to be fine but there is always an underlying vibe of co-dependency between Jake and Simone. Tess learns that Simone cared for Jake when his parents died and that their interaction wasn’t always platonic.
Eventually, the bond between the two becomes too much for Tess and the break-up is brutal. It causes Tess to almost overdose and to have to quit her beloved job because if she didn’t she would be forced to move to another of the owners restaurants, a smokehouse no less. The ending is vague and we never fine out what she plans to do, although it’s a sure bet she will stay in New York City.
Things I didn’t like:
I didn’t like that her friends and she (mostly) used alcohol and drug to excess. In one scene I just knew she was going to overdose and die, but she made back to her apartment after having passed out on a street corner. We never learn who took her back to her apartment.
I hate that when she went to talk to Howard, the restaurant manager, to see about moving up to a server position, he suggested she come back at one am(this should have been a red flag) and she did and let him have sex with her. I felt she knew that’s what he wanted and did it anyway. Soon after this scene she had to quit her job.
Truly, I felt bad for Tess during the whole book.
Summing up – I didn’t like the book and I did like the book. Makes no sense, but there it is!