It is both apt and true to say that Sweetbitter, the heady debut novel author Stephanie Danler set in the carnal, chaotic microcosm of New York’s dive bars and fine dining establishments, not only satisfied but restored my appetite for reading fiction.
And, in the grand tradition of artworks wherein an at-first guileless ingénue moves to The Big Apple to Start Her Life™ in earnest, it also made me want to drop everything, move to New York and return to a past life spent working in restaurants, which hardly seems a viable or advisable course of action.
If that isn’t testament to the intoxicating properties of Danler’s clean prose, I don’t know what is.
Sweetbitter’s power not only lies in its hitherto unfathomable ability to provoke nostalgia for my very brief flirtation with the front-of-house world, but in the intimate evocation of that world and those singular relationships you forge in the crucible – double shifts, dealing with customers, late-nights spent drinking – of fine dining.
Danler’s familiarity comes from proximity, from years spent working at restaurants like Buvette, deeply ensconced in viticulture while working at specialty wine stores in Brooklyn, and most significantly at Union Square Café – the Manhattan dining institution that quickly becomes a fictionalized version of the restaurant where her protagonist Tess lands work as a backwaiter.
Sweetbitter is a bildungsroman condensed into the space of one year in which Tess is effectively reborn, questions her desires, her identity and her palette, which, as we learn from the first pages, “is all about balance.
“The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter. Now your tongue is coded. A certain connoisseurship of taste, a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.”
Which is not to say Tess has neither good nor bad taste per se, but rather a large insatiable appetite (or, perhaps more accurately, appetites). Sweetbitter fast becomes a potent feast of sex, drugs and lobster roll commingled with a slightly perverse love triangle that will likely strike a chord with a great deal many twentysomethings in search of something, anything on which to anchor a sense of self.
Much like her protagonist, Danler moved to New York at 22 in 2006, after graduating from Kenyon College, in Ohio. Sweetbitter is not, as Danler has repeatedly insisted, a roman-à-clef but instead draws richly and candidly on her experiences from the last decade spent in the city to create an entirely new world. She left the city February this year, returning to California – the state where she was born, in Long Beach to be precise – and when I speak to her she has just returned to the house she’s renting in Laurel Canyon (once occupied by members of Fleetwood Mac) having spent her designated weekly day with her grandfather, with whom she is especially close.
Stephanie Mannatt Danler, now 32-years-old, fell in love with food when she started working in restaurants at 15-years-old as a hostess at a seafood restaurant. It was there that she tried her first oyster. For her character Tess, the experience is similarly as transformative, albeit one charged with palpable eroticism: “I was prepared for the brininess,” writes Danler.
“For the softness of it. For the rigidity and strangeness of the ritual. Adrenalized, fiercely private. I panted slightly and opened my eyes… [The beer] was nearly black, persuasive, chocolate, weighty. The finish was cream, it matched the oyster’s creaminess. The sensory conspiracy made the blood rush to my head, made my skin break out in goose bumps… ‘Can I have another?’”
If Danler does a hauntingly good job at resurrecting the sensation of a first time, perhaps it’s because she trained herself from the age of eight by obsessively reading Edgar Allen Poe’s ghost stories. Her own early attempts at the genre soon landed her in considerable trouble at her Catholic school (“They were quite gruesome. I illustrated them as well”) but as far as the impulse to write is concerned, she never really had a choice otherwise and since then, she says she hasn’t stopped. While family was part of the reason she left New York, a feeling of exhaustion unique to the city is just as much to blame.
“I don’t think that anyone leaves New York feeling successful or feeling like they’ve triumphed,” Danler says over the phone. “The city’s too material and it’s too volatile and it can’t really be conquered in that way. I think you always leave New York, by virtue of leaving, feeling like a failure in some way. I don’t know that I got everything that I wanted or needed.”
Danler left the city that she says shaped her sense of identity so drastically, where she had cut her teeth in food and wine, just as her debut was about to be published. Doing so gave rise to a great deal of self-examination of the kind that often arises during major transitional periods (“Why wasn’t it what I wanted anymore? Was I too soft? Was I going to be stupid? What does this mean about my character?”) – agonising liminal stages where you anxiously await the payoff from whatever considerable gamble you’ve made. “You could just kill yourself trying to imagine what’s going to happen,” recalls Danler.
“The book could be well received by some people; you could get terrible reviews. It could be a hit with indie bookstores, but not find a broader audience. It could go on the New York Times bestseller list! [Or] nothing could happen!”
But, of course, something happened. Danler’s novel has been phenomenally successful, and made its debut at No.14 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction in June. It has been received with the kind of critical praise that would silence those who attributed Danler’s famous high six-figure, two-book deal with Knopf to how she looks rather than how she writes. Surely that’s a sure enough sign of unimaginable success for a first time novelist?
The man responsible for making the latter part happen is Peter Gethers, a senior vice president and editor at large at Penguin Random House, who was also a regular at Buvette, a West Village French eatery where Danler waitressed while working toward her M.F.A. in creative writing at the New School. It was in his hands that Danler’s manuscript fatefully landed. He told her at this outset of this venture, in that early period of uncertainty, to think of success in the following terms: “’You get to write! You’ve already had a success, and everything that happens afterwards is really not you.’” And it’s true, says Danler. She’s currently amidst a “whirlwind” book tour that’s becoming increasingly protracted for a novel that “has done better than anyone could’ve anticipated.
“It doesn’t feel like success. It feels like success for Knopf, my publishing house; it feels like it made a lot of people who worked really hard on this book happy, but my success is that I don’t have to waitress right now and I get to be a writer. That’s it, I won! Everything else is secondary.”
Another measure of success, less quantifiable but perhaps more gratifying, has been the adoration with which the book has been received on social media. For a story that takes place a year before the release of the first iPhone, the fervor with which it has been embraced is nothing short of remarkable. “It’s incredible moving,” says Danler, describing the widespread social media tributes the novel has generated. “And [it’s] so much more gratifying than I could have ever anticipated to have this small online community, which is overwhelmingly positive, and to be able to say thank you directly to readers.”
As anyone familiar with the inverse aspects of social media will attest, widespread exposure to a work of art of this nature inevitably elicits mixed responses. Danler insists she doesn’t read reviews (bar the Times review) but when she is confronted with negative feedback, especially on social media, there’s “an entirely new community” to whom she can return and say ‘thank you’. It has been a saving grace of the whole experience.
At face value, Danler’s story is as textbook a fairytale as they come. The newly-graduated twentysomething matriculating to New York with ambitions of translating her college thesis into the Great American Novel; the hustle and the hedonism and the forging of a new life, a new self and a new home; the chance encounter with an editor; the book deal, the successful release and a return to one’s roots. It would be too easy to simplify such a sequence as the product of ‘chance’, to distil it down to something as trivial as ‘luck’ – but it’s something many have tried, and will no doubt continue, to do.
“When I got my book deal, I was a waitress and I felt very lucky and I had a lot of people telling me how lucky I was. What I have realised during this process is that there is something trivialising about describing the work I did and the years of sacrifice and compromise and all the horrific personal details of your life that go into making something like a novel and then calling it ‘lucky’.”
I ask Danler how having that realization has changed her and she replies that she has a better sense of ownership over her accomplishments, and is less apologetic about staking a claim to her place in the world. “So many people talk about writing a book and not very many people do it. That is a massive accomplishment, in that no matter what happens in the future, nobody can take that way from me. I have stopped calling myself lucky. I am very fortunate and very blessed, but it was not ‘lucky’ that I finished writing Sweetbitter.
“So many aspiring writers want to know the trick. There is no trick. You show up at the desk, you work, you finish your manuscript, and you revise it. There are steps that you take but there’s no shortcut to it. It’s just a massive amount of very harrowing, depressing, lonely work! ‘Congratulations, you’re a novelist!’”
Catharsis sounds as though it’s proving more elusive for Danler than a milestone like publishing your first major work would suggest. A second work of fiction has been placed on the backburner while Sweetbitter still occupies the largest parts of Danler’s brain and schedule, if such a thing exists. There are, however, personal essays and pieces of travel writing to keep her occupied in the interim. She has just returned from time spent in Sicily and is about to embark on a trip to Peru to visit the Sacred Valley. Then there’s the endless pursuit of balance, something Danler “has never quite achieved. I’m not someone for whom moderation comes naturally or easily, so part of me at this point is like… ‘Fuck it!’”
If she isn’t ready to leave the world of Sweetbitter behind just yet, I suggest that maybe she might enjoy adapting it as a screenplay – it is, after all, overripe for a big screen adaptation. It has all the ingredients: a beautiful young female lead and a brooding love interest in a damaged cocktail bartender; scenes that are heady, harrowing and hopeful, teaming with sustenance, sex and stimulants – synthetic, sweet and savory – shared and sequestered away by an equally as colourful cast.
Danler isn’t ready to talk about that just yet though, however, “I can say that I’m very excited to see what the next phase of Sweetbitter is in another medium. It’ll be great.”
It’s an uncharacteristically coy, cryptic response from the author who has written and speaks so candidly about her formative experiences and what they’ve given her in return. Think of it as an appetiser then, and happily return for seconds.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is published by Bloomsbury, $27.99, out now.
Tile and cover image: Instagram