By Stephanie Danler
352 pages, $25
Listen to Me
By Hannah Pittard
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
194 pages, $25
By Karen Brady
Relationships – intimate and otherwise – are at the core of two rewarding new novels, each a shrewd psychological study with but a smidgen of a plot.
Stephanie Danler’s impressive “Sweetbitter,” chronicles the fragile first year of a young artist and waiter seeking her fortune in New York. Hannah Pittard’s sophisticated “Listen to Me,” has a timeline of 24 tense hours in the fraying marriage of Mark and Maggie, a professor and a veterinarian a decade beyond grad school.
Danler is the surprise here, bringing us – in her debut novel – not only a dead-on depiction of a newcomer’s initial months in the Big Apple but a lush, hard-drinking-and-drugging and often sordid rendering of life behind the scenes of one of Manhattan’s most popular restaurants.
Tess is that newcomer, arriving in New York “from a place so small you couldn’t find it on a generous map.” When asked at her restaurant interview why she had chosen the city, she asserts, “It really didn’t feel like a choice. Where else is there to go?”
Later, when Tess meets the owner of what we glean is the Union Square Cafe, he tells her, “We are creating the world as it should be. We don’t have to pay any attention to how it is.”
Tess becomes very good at that sort of denial, soon intermingling her work and her personal life with such a heightened awareness of others that she leaves little for herself.
“You know, nobody is from here,” a co-worker tells her. “We were all new. And like I always say, it’s just dinner.”
Dinner indeed. Danler imbues “Sweetbitter” with an almost palpable sense of taste and smell, the accoutrements of a first-rate restaurant that delivers in the food department while thriving as well via such artifice as fresh flowers and shiny floors not to mention the human factor, in particular the chef, cooks and wait staff who outperform themselves from start to closing time, then morph into a gang of late-night hard partiers, rolling joints, doing lines and availing themselves of the restaurant’s vast bar offerings.
“It was the duality of everyone that floored me,” Tess muses, remembering the first time she saw this, finding herself “too dazzled to contribute.”
These shades of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” recede as “Sweetbitter” goes on, introducing us to Simone, “Wine Woman” and senior server who has been at the restaurant for years – and Jake, the brooding bad-boy bartender Tess will fall for, knowing all the while that their connection is unsustainable. (Or as one co-worker puts it, “This place is a love shack, darlin’.”)
Tess is the protagonist here – but Simone is the character who fascinates, she who has “lived in Europe” and whose broad knowledge of other cultures is unequalled at the restaurant. “Everything she touched, she added an apostrophe for,” Tess notes.
Simone also holds sway over Jake whom she has apparently known since his childhood. Yet they are different: “He was the master of indifference,” Tess says, “and she was the master of attention.”
Danler knows what she is doing here – bringing us characters who don’t change in Tess’ maturing eyes and who might be workers in any large city in any close-knit industry with the novel’s seducer as much a place as a person.
“Sweetbitter,” the book’s title, is taken from a poem by Sappho – about Eros. Its story, both sweet and bitter, is, in large part, Danler’s own. In interviews, she has told of giving a copy of the manuscript to a book publisher, a customer at the restaurant.
Toward its end, she salutes the heady first months of “Sweetbitter,” a time in most our lives, never to be repeated, when we thought that “life… didn’t accumulate, it was wiped clean as a board at the end of the night and if we kept our spirits up, it meant we were inexhaustible.”
Hannah Pittard’s fine “Listen to Me” also takes its title from antiquity – in this case, Homer’s “Iliad.” A taut, slim book covering a single day, it nonetheless encompasses the full gamut of human emotion, and neuroses, while taking a couple through some of the most dangerous waters a marriage can encounter.
Its key is Pittard’s uncanny ability to render not only the spoken but the unspoken words of her characters in a way that showcases their often harmful divide: She simply nails the places where Mark and Maggie, husband and wife, have come to a lack of communication.
“Who was that woman out there?” Mark asks himself early in the novel. “And what was the possibility that he’d actually spend his life with her? His whole life? Think about it: what were the actual odds?...Mark’s guess? The odds were against them.”
It is, in both metaphoric and actual ways, the perfect storm: Maggie has recently been mugged, a life-altering experience whose aftereffects are apparent to Mark only in her new and unprecedented preoccupation with disaster, how it can come in an instant, out of nowhere.
“Part of what made Maggie’s intense new relationship with fear so intolerable,” Mark thinks, “was that it felt like a comment about him. That switchblade, those cans of mace, that outrageous application for a concealed carry permit – it all felt like maybe Maggie didn’t think he could protect her if and when she needed protection…”
Add to this the fact of Mark’s former research assistant, Elizabeth, who has taken to sending Mark come-hither emails, and we have a marriage in a tinderbox. Pittard presents this point in time on a trip the couple takes – with their dog Gerome — from their home in Chicago to Mark’s parents’ in Charlottesville, VA.
It is a trip that will become a harrowing psychological journey, one that begins with a quarrel — “the latticework of relationships” – causing Mark and Maggie to leave not only later than they had planned but also unaware of severe-storm warnings along their route. And for the first few miles, they encounter nothing but sun, in time stopping to walk Gerome.
“It was hard to believe they were headed in the direction of a multi-state storm,” Maggie muses, “but she’d gotten out her phone while she was walking Gerome and a brief search had turned up some legitimately brutal photos as evidence – loose power lines, homes with trees resting on their roofs…”
This is the same phone that, later in their treacherous trip, will betray Mark and Maggie, not indicating a dead end on a dark country road. But Maggie will tell Mark that “what he could see – what they could both technically see because neither of them was blind – didn’t exist because it wasn’t on her phone.”
Technology plays a secondary role in this marital drama, Maggie clinging to it, Mark intent on connecting instead with nature, with the self, with “the realness of the world.” Gerome, however, is pivotal – his role transforming Mark’s focus while forcing Maggie to relinquish hers as victim.
Will (as yesteryear’s women’s magazines used to ask) this marriage survive? Who knows? Pittard certainly plants seeds of hope in this near-perfect little book. Or, as Maggie avers at one point, “What it all came down to was a simple game of chance.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.