Restaurants, Retail, and Other Underutilized Settings in Literary Fiction

Sweetbitter CoverI recently jumped Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (Goodreads) to the top of my TBR queue because I was in desperate need of something not unnerving (e.g. The Hole, Future Home of the Living God) and not terribly sad (e.g. They Both Die at the End, All the Ever Afters).

Sweetbitter is still kind of sad, as the name suggests. But I’m loving it so far regardless, and it’s reminding me that restaurants are criminally underused as a setting for fiction.

Sweetbitter follows a woman who moves alone from a small town to New York City, where she lands a job at a landmark restaurant as a backwaiter. She falls into a dizzying love triangle with Simone and Jake, two otherworldly-beautiful folks with secrets to keep, and tries to survive New York’s punishing restaurant scene.

Charmingly, the main character isn’t a writer or actress or any other cliché of the coming-to-New-York story: she’s just someone who wants to live in New York, and decides that working as a waitress is the best way to make that happen.

Danler writes beautifully about food, friends, sex, and relationships, and best of all, she perfectly captures the off-kilter, loss-of-innocence feeling that can happen when you work in a restaurant. I can’t wait to review this one next week, and it’s stirring up all kinds of feelings in me about what’s missing from today’s literary fiction.

Part of my intense connection to Sweetbitter comes from my own brief experience working in a restaurant-slash-ice-cream shop when I was 17. It was horrible. I barely lasted two months. The customers were punishing, I was always tired and sore, and the behind-the-scenes drama between kitchen staff, waitstaff, and ice cream scoopers was unbearable. (I remember one night around midnight, after close, when everyone decided to compare their favorite vibrator brands in graphic, uncomfortable detail, sexual harassment rules be damned.)

My experience felt extraordinary at the time, but in the scheme of things, it was actually a shockingly boring one for food service. My sister still works as a waitress, hostess, and bartender, and the stories she tells could curl anyone’s toes: ditto the stories of my other food-service-working friends and family. It’s amazing to me that this goldmine isn’t tapped by writers more often–or maybe it is being written, and just not published, which is another problem altogether.

I think literary fiction is having something of an identity crisis at the moment. On one hand, it’s still partially the white women’s book club genre that A Brief History of Seven Killings author Marlon James decried (rightly, I think) back in 2015: focused to a fault on “middle style prose and private ennui.”

On the other hand, literary fiction is also being cracked wide open by authors like Tayari Jones, Celeste Ng, Yaa Gyasi, Catherine Lacey, Rachel Kushner, and Rachel Khong, all of whom wrote books that explored massive topics like slavery and mass incarceration, aging parents and economic downturns, adoption and parenthood, online dating and changing technology in weird, bright, true, and beautiful ways.

That second type of literary fiction is the one that I hope persists–a fiction that reflects a wide swath of ordinary lives back at us with extraordinary empathy and extraordinary prose.

Don’t get me wrong: I know that Sweetbitter is only barely outside the literary norm. Danler’s protagonist is still young, thin, white, and beautiful, and getting a job at a world-class restaurant the second you arrive in New York City is about as realistic as the 1950 Disney Cinderella movie. But it’s given me a delicious taste of what can happen when literary fiction gives itself over to sensuality rather than ennui, to the tactile and real rather than the cerebral and detached. And I want more.


What settings would you like to see literary fiction explore more? Do you have any recommendations for novels set in restaurants, now that my appetite has been thoroughly whetted? Do you have any juicy food service or retail stories? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Book Review: THE ANSWERS by Catherine Lacey

The Answers’ premise is about as difficult to explain as the novel’s many layers are to digest: a broke New York 30-something, Mary, gets a job acting as an on-call “Emotional Girlfriend” to a vain, selfish actor and auteur. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, this “Girlfriend Experiment” feels no stranger than reality TV or even more ordinary experiences of falling in love. Love or hate The Answers, you’ll almost certainly find it unforgettable (and not just because of its eye-catching cover).

You can read my full review below.


9780374100261

The Answers by Catherine Lacey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: June 6, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-3741-0026-1
  • length: 304 pages

I wondered what could have happened between them that would make her need him this badly, but I suppose you can never tell what is happening between people. It’s as private as eye contact, no room for more than two.

The Answers, page 272

Few books have reminded me how subjective reading is as potently as The Answers did. As I turned the pages of Lacey’s novel, I kept thinking about why, for example, I gave five stars to There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon–a book that’s undoubtedly lovely but also forgettable–but only four stars to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book I think of constantly and even purchased as a Christmas gift for my partner.

Oh, the things that keep a book blogger up at night.

The answer is because I’m flawed, of course, but also because I’ve noticed that I demand more from books I love than from books I merely like and admire. I loved The Answers unconditionally–but I also wanted to demand more from it.

In The Answers, 30-year-old Mary is isolated and lonely, crushed by travel debt, and seriously ill with chronic pain and numbness that doctors can’t explain. Her best friend Chandra recommends new-agey PAKing treatments, and to Mary’s shock, they begin to cure her–but they’re also desperately expensive, so she replies to a cryptic job ad, and is quickly hired as the “Emotional Girlfriend” in a vanity project-cum-scientific experiment run by actor Kurt Sky. Mary caters to Kurt’s every emotional need for pay, along with teams of other women who cater to his other needs, like the “Mundanity Girlfriend,” “Anger Girlfriend,” and the, er, “Intimacy Team.”

Unsurprisingly, the “Girlfriend Experiment” doesn’t go well.

I tweeted up a storm about this book’s thriller-like atmosphere–it feels intensely like a David Fincher movie, complete with me imagining Rooney Mara as its heroine–though it’s not a thriller at all. Rather, it’s a deep dive into the meanings of vanity, celebrity, isolation, the queasy power of falling in love, and–profoundly–sexism.

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Rooney Mara chews out Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).

We eventually learn that Mary was an only child raised off the grid by deeply Christian parents. She’s ignorant of and ambivalent towards pop culture: she’s never seen a movie, doesn’t listen to music, and doesn’t read the news, making her the perfect sponge for all of superstar Kurt Sky’s emotional diatribes, since she has absolutely no idea who he is.

Kurt fetishizes Mary’s emotional availability to an absurd degree, ignoring the fact that he’s literally paying her to act that way, and Mary, for her part, finds herself falling in a sort of love with Kurt regardless. The whole experiment is a an extreme allegory for how sexism, money, and power complicate all sorts of relationships between men and women, but it never feels heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, the story’s early beginning and late end did leave a lot to be desired. Mary is inscrutable, something that’s made worse, not better, by parts I and III’s first-person perspective. (Part II, told in third-person omniscient, is by far the novel’s strongest section.) Some questions also don’t get the answers (ha!) that I was looking for, or don’t get answered at all; I think that Mary’s best friend Chandra, in particular, gets short shrift.

I couldn’t help it, though–by 50 pages in, I was enough in love with The Answers’ bonkers, brilliant premise and Lacey’s lyrical, profound style to forgive it just about anything. The idea of the Girlfriend Experiment might be extreme–but so is sexism; so is falling in love. 4/5 stars.


My copy of The Answers came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.19.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week was an absolute fiction palooza for me, and in putting together this list, I noticed that my tastes have run toward the darker and weirder of late. Hmm.

Let’s dive in!


9780143127550Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I adored Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (my review)so when this book was on deep sale at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s critically acclaimed debut about a Chinese American family whose daughter, Lydia, is found dead in a lake.

Bonus: this book is on its way to becoming a movie, which is perhaps part of why Barnes & Noble had it out on the sale tables!

9781501112331In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This book is yet another book purchase I can attribute to my abiding love of thrillers, especially ones with a literary edge, and most especially ones whose tension hinges on femininity and sexism. I don’t know much about the plot, but based on its marketing, it’s going to be right up my alley.

Another bonus: Like Everything I Never Told You, this book is also being adapted into a movie!

9780307341556Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: It feels a little bit like cheating to put a book I’ve already read in my bookbag, but Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors of all time and I very stupidly purged my copies of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl between freshman and sophomore year. Sharp Objects is a creepy crime thriller about murders of young girls in a small town full of some incredibly toxic secrets. After snagging this on sale, I’m just happy to have one of my precious babies back on my bookshelf again. (Regretfully, I still haven’t replaced Gone Girl yet, and I have yet to read Flynn’s other novel, Dark Places.)

Yet another bonus (and I promise this is the last one): I absolutely cannot wait to see the HBO adaptation of this book, which premieres this summer!

9781936787579A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I’m trying to do better about reading works by authors outside the U.S. and U.K., and A Loving, Faithful Animal is by an Australian author, Josephine Rowe. It’s a novel about an Australian soldier who returns from conscripted service in the Vietnam War and the trauma and healing his family endures, which sounds really interesting to me. It’s been also well-reviewed, its cover design is lovely, and it’s quite a small, short book–always pluses. I’m hoping it will be a bracing palate-cleanser that I can squeeze in between some of the longer books on my to-read list.

9780374100261The Answers by Catherine Lacey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Why I’m excited: I don’t quite understand the premise of this novel–a woman who is flat-broke from medical bills ends up being paid to participate in an experiment to uncover the perfect recipe for a romantic relationship, I think? –but I don’t need to be clear on everything to know that it will be delightfully bizarre. Part of the premise is that the protagonist suffers from chronic pain–something I’ve dealt with for years–so I’m excited for that aspect, as well.

9781510720671The Last to See Me by M Dressler

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Why I’m excited: This novel is a ghost story set in a California mansion, and while ghost stories are not usually my thing, the marketing compares Dressler’s style to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, which will sell me on a book every time. (Maybe that makes me a sucker?) I did really love Larissa Pham’s recent ghost story, too, so maybe I’m less averse to ghosts than I think. This feels like the riskiest book I acquired this week, but at least it’s a library loan, so I’m not out any money if it turns out to not be my thing.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!