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: GOODBYE, VITAMIN by Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong’s novel about a quarter-life-crisis is weird, funny, and sneakily devastating. When 30-something protagonist Ruth returns home after a messy breakup to help care for her father, who has recently developed dementia, she finds that her family is quietly falling apart; in response, Ruth begins to keep an aimless diary of her days that’s full of meditations on the meaning of life, love, and memory. (Also, terrible vegetable puns.) It’s utterly delightful.

Read my full review below.


9781250109163

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Henry Holt and Company (imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: July 11, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-250-10916-3
  • length: 208 pages

I’m wary of “quirky” books, because I often think “quirkiness” is a cover for sloppy craft that tosses random happenstance together and calls it a plot. If you feel the same, I’m sorry to tell you that Goodbye, Vitamin is very California-quirky. (At one point, protagonist Ruth and her best friend Bonnie get paid to seat-fill for the Oscars.) But I’d also like to reassure you that Rachel Khong knows what she’s doing, and that I am deeply in love with this book, and hope you will be, too.

With a title like Goodbye, Vitamin, humor is to be expected; what I didn’t expect was this novel’s absorbing, infectious charm.

The conceit is that Ruth returns home after painful split with her ex-fiancé in order to care for her aging father who has just been diagnosed with dementia. While she also shares meaningful moments with her mother and brother (and a cute grad student named Theo), Goodbye, Vitamin is squarely a father-daughter novel. The perspective flits between Ruth’s first-person and an almost-second-person–you, Ruth’s father–for whom the reader is a sort of proxy.

There is something uniquely frightening about memory loss, and that fear anchors the novel, epitomized by Ruth’s obsessive search for “dementia-fighting” foods like jellyfish, juice shots, and cruciferous vegetables. She knows she’s prolonging the inevitable, but it can’t hurt, right?

Meanwhile, her father leaves scraps of paper for her to find; his own diary of Ruth’s childhood, full of chestnuts like:

Today you asked me what “Dick” meant, and while I was deciding what direction I should take, you said, “Mom said you were one.”

Ruth’s devotion to her father, despite his faults–she quickly discovers that he was a philanderer and alcohol abuser during her years-long period of family avoidance–is deadly serious, lending credibility to the more whimsical plot points, including the creation of a fake class for her father (a former history professor) to “teach,” complete with real grad students.

Sure, I don’t really believe that grad students would devote so much time to the charade, especially when it involves expensive outings to Disneyland, but Khong’s distinctive prose style–which always feels firmly in media res–left me eager to play along.

For every dose of whimsy, there were also painful moments that cut me to the bone. Ruth’s life is perhaps more off the rails than average, but her anger that life has been nothing like she hoped it would be is universally intelligible. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ruth’s relationship with her mother, who is both an aspirational and pitiable figure; a beautiful, competent woman deeply hurt by her husband’s carelessness and by her daughter’s years-long estrangement.

No family is perfect is a truism, but Khong elevates the sentiment with every bizarre particularity of this family–recognizable not for their actions but rather, for the universal harm and humor they enact upon each other.

The novel is short at 208 pages; consider it an infusion of insight as potent as a cabbage juice shot–but far more pleasant.  5/5 stars.


My copy of Goodbye, Vitamin came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 12.8.17

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.

Side note: I’ve been reading so many review-worthy books lately that I’m considering adding a second scheduled slot for reviews like I’m already doing with Monday Reads–I’m thinking on Thursdays or even Saturdays–or maybe I’ll drop extra reviews in randomly…I’m not sure yet!

Musings aside, here are two books I picked up this week that I’m dying to read.


9781250124579

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Loving thy neighbor is easier said than done.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.

Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering softens into conversation. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: This has been my year of making a conscious effort to read more books by women, and especially books about women who are different from myself. I’m 23, not in my 80s as these two characters are, and I’ll be interested to see if I find this book relatable anyway…even if I don’t, it promises to be funny and sweet, something I need this week.

9781250109163

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town, and arrives at her parents’ home to find family life more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory. Her mother, like Ruth, is smarting from a betrayal. But over the course of a year, the comedy in Ruth’s situation takes hold, gently transforming her grief.

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love books about family, which this is, and I also love NPR’s 2017 book concierge, where this book was featured. Like The Woman Next Door, it sounds like there’s a humorous component. Also, the cover design is pretty, and the spine was eye-catching on the library shelf. (What can I say? Sometimes I do judge by a cover.)


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