SWEETBITTER, by Stephanie Danler. Alfred A. Knopf, 356 pp., $25.
People make romance of being young in New York, but it’s never an easy time. If it’s exhilarating to have no money and bad sex, to mythologize beautiful people and walk home over bridges at 4 a.m., we might consider why we do these things. The answer is nearly always to feel less alone, to forge connection as we fumble toward the person we dream of becoming.
Tess, the 22-year-old protagonist of Stephanie Danler’s first novel, “Sweetbitter,” conjures her future self on her drive to New York.
“We had the same hair but she didn’t look like me. She was in a camel coat and ankle boots. . . . She carried various shopping bags from specialty stores. . . . She had lovers and breakups, an analyst, a library, acquaintances she ran into on the street whose names she couldn’t call to mind. She belonged to herself only.”
Tess, whose mother “drove away before I could open my eyes,” will nurture this creature into being by means of the city, and more specifically the restaurant where she gets a job, a teeming hothouse patterned after the Union Square Cafe (where Danler once worked as a server). Ostensibly about the New York restaurant scene and the carnal pleasures of food — there are oysters sliding down throats, and the smell of fall apples, and the smoke and sting of booze going down (and coming back up) — the novel is actually concerned with appetite, the strategies Tess employs to satisfy it, those she consumes and decimates along the way. Whether she knows she is doing so is a matter of perspective.
“Your self-awareness is lacking,” Tess is told, by one of her paramours-slash-victims. Simone is an oenophile and longtime employee of the restaurant, whose glamour and romantic battle scars initially cause Tess to fall in a kind of mother-love. The love inspired by Simone, a winning and full-fleshed character, and the ostensibly romantic bond she has with bartender Jake, both boil down to the same thing: these are people from whom Tess draws sustenance and, once consumed, are no more useful to her than a dirty plate.
Not that Tess is bald in her ambitions — no, she is a charmer, a chameleon. She can be whip-smart and book-smart as needed. She can play the naif, or the hard partyer (the after-hours scenes where servers overdrink and crack wise are among the book’s best, although there are too many of them). Tess is perhaps most acute when sidling close enough to her future selves to breathe on them. She courts the idea of becoming the restaurant’s next Simone, and literally fetches water for the embodiment of the woman in the camel coat, a former server who has married rich and is back at the restaurant as a customer.
“I felt a kinship with Samantha,” Tess says, taking in how Samantha’s “hands, with long, pale-pink ovals for fingernails, conducted their precious stones and platinum with ease.”
Danler can be a brilliant observer of the city; she can make dialogue snap; she is unafraid to give us a protagonist whose drive can be monstrous. But what is it that Tess wants?
“I’m going to have everything,” she tells Jake.
Some readers may see in “Sweetbitter” another New York orphan story, a clever girl brave in her willingness to take on the city on her own terms. Tess at one point imagines Simone emerging whole from Zeus’ head, when of course it is motherless Tess who is Athena, goddess of wisdom, goddess of war, invulnerable. With eyes now open, Tess will be the one who does the leaving, who will not remember names, who will belong to herself only.