Dystopia, Loss, Love, and Restaurant Life: What Novels I’ve Read this Month (Part 1)

For Mother’s Day, my son wrote about me for a school assignment, and the finished piece was waiting for me, next to a vase of flowers, when I woke up. Some of the writing was in the form of a poem, a pencil drawing of the two of us on the top of the page. Parts of what he wrote about me were wrong—“My mom likes Bloody Marys” (nope, that’s my husband)—and some of it was wildly optimistic—“My mom dreams of having a red panda” (that’s his sister). One observation, though, was 100% correct: “My mom likes to read books,” he wrote. Well, he really wrote “my mom likes to read long and boring books,” but we can agree those adjectives weren’t there, okay?

I do love to read books, and in today’s post, I have two book reviews of novels I have read the past month: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler and The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen. Look for another post tomorrow about two more books I read this month: 1984 by George Orwell; and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
sweetbitter
Sweetbitter has received a lot of critical acclaim, so I was intrigued. One chapter in, and I knew this book wasn’t for me. A friend who had also read it explained the problem: “I think we’re too old for this book.” She’s right.

If you’re a millennial, this novel is for you. The main character, Tess, a recent college graduate, is looking to make her way in the restaurant world in New York City, and her mistakes, late-night partying, and romantic dilemmas will likely resonate with twenty-somethings also seeking their way through early adulthood.

But if you’re fortysomething and well away from the trials of being 23, what do you think of Sweetbitter? Perhaps, like me, you’ll find the romantic triangle and personal drama Tess experiences distracting and even a bit annoying. Instead, what you’ll find the most compelling about this novel is its inside look at high-end restaurant life, specifically from the point-of-view of the front-of-the-house. Tess is a back-end waiter (the person who clears your plates, refills your water, and brings you more bread) at a Manhattan hot-spot, and her efforts to learn her trade allow the reader to journey with her as she develops a love of wine, tastes her first truffle, and understands the flow of service, from the pre-shift family meal to the after hours final drink. Danler’s real-life experience in the restaurant world fueled this portion of the book, and this behind-the-scenes look at working in a restaurant was captivating. It is the best part of Sweetbitter.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Danler explained her motivation writing Sweetbitter, explaining: “I feel like there aren’t enough female coming-of-age stories.” I agree; we need more stories about women—of all backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and worldviews—in the world today. I applaud Danler’s creation of Tess, flaws and all, and the opportunity she provides the reader to see a glimpse into her struggles, yet I found Tess, at times, tiresome. Of course, she falls for the bad boy, and of course, it doesn’t go well. I want to read more coming of age stories where women aren’t defined by their relationships to men, and where women make choices that are smart and forward-thinking, not self-sabotaging.

One more point: Danler balances some of these weaker parts with an unexpected choice: poetry. She intersperses Sweetbitter with poems that reflect the rhythm and pace of restaurant service, and I found that to be a creative narrative tool.

=> Recommendation: Read Sweetbitter if you want to work in restaurants, or if you’re, like Danler and her main character, in your twenties and searching for a way to express your angst.
=> Rating: 2/5 stars

The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen
the grief of others
A baby has died and a family’s carefully constructed happiness is shaken. Can they survive their loss? The premise of The Grief of Others pulled me in. While I didn’t necessarily want to read about the death of a baby, I was intrigued about the aftermath of such a loss—the time of recovery of healing that follows a terrible time—and that interest kept me engaged in this well-written novel.

I liked the beginning half of this book. Its concentration on different narrators—the mother and father, children, and a new family friend—was a successful technique that advanced the storyline. I especially liked the sections that gave the two youngest children center stage, as there is something especially powerful about seeing grief through younger eyes. The struggle of the daughter, Biscuit, to get closure on her baby brother’s death, at first, perplexes her parents, and later proves to be the opening they need to find their way back to one another. Her older brother, Paul, experiences the pain of being bullied, and those sequences with him, as he processes how sad being rejected by his peers makes him feel, are some of the more compelling sequences in the book.

As The Grief of Others progresses, the author jumps the story around in time, which didn’t always work for me. The skips and hops were, perhaps, necessary to understand the characters’ motivations, but I wanted to luxuriate in the present with the characters. This changing timeline, coupled with the different narrators, leaves the reader without the chance to be present at key developments; rather, these moments are observed by one character and reported. This was a deliberate choice by the author but one, nonetheless, that left me unfulfilled.

Despite the challenges facing the family in this novel, they are connected to one another, and that love helps the reader root for them throughout The Grief of Others, no matter what choices they make. “For all its deep-seated sorrows, this is a hopeful book, a series of striking vignettes illuminating the humanity of these fully realized characters,” described The New York Times review of this book, a sentiment with which I completely agree.

=> Recommendation: Heading on vacation this summer? Throw The Grief of Others in your beach bag. There is much to think about in Hager Cohen’s novel, and you’ll be left pondering the ways we get through tough times.
=> Rating: 3/5 stars

Have you read any of these books? Do you agree, or disagree, with my reviews? Let me know in the comments!

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