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: AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

About a black man’s wrongful conviction and the shattering effect it has on his wife (and everyone around him), the plot of An American Marriage may feel ripped from the headlines, but Tayari Jones’s gifted and highly personal prose takes it someplace much richer, deeper, and truer. Heartbreaking, unforgettable, and even a little bit hopeful, this novel is something special.

You can read my full review below.


9781616201340

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Algonquin Books (an imprint of Workman Publishing)
  • publication date: February 6, 2018
  • isbn: 978-1-6162-0134-0
  • length: 320 pages

Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says GET OUT, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it’s because she’s pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key.

An American Marriage, page 14

If good historical fiction is always about the time in which it was written (and not about the time where it’s set), then I think it’s also fair to say good contemporary fiction is often about the future: futures the author and readers want, and ones they hope never come to pass.

An American Marriage is an excellent example of good contemporary fiction. Its characters are nuanced, its plot is ambitious, and Tayari Jones’s prose sings on every page. It’s also a book that reckons with past and present but is, above all, about the future–both the future of the marriage at the novel’s center, and the future of a United States that does not change its course, where terrible and frightening injustices continue to happen with alarming regularity.

Celestial and Roy are black, bourgeois Atlantan newlyweds settling into a passionate marriage that’s not quite on the rocks, but not smooth sailing, either. On an ill-fated trip to Louisiana to visit Roy’s parents, Roy is accused of a rape he didn’t commit and sentenced to thirteen years in prison, shattering both his life and Celestial’s.

An American Marriage is the rare book that I don’t think I could spoil for you if I tried, since all of its tension comes from knowing what will happen and being powerless to stop it: Roy’s arrest and conviction will feel depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news. I felt an especially sharp pang when Roy admits that he feels grateful that at least the cops didn’t just shoot him.

The fact that nearly every (? in fact, perhaps every) character is black and that none of them are surprised by what happens (even if they’re devastated by it) is refreshing in a climate where most novels that touch on racism are preoccupied with convincing white people that racism exists in the first place and not with actually telling a story. It frees up An American Marriage to be much more than something ripped from the headlines.

Jones doesn’t tidily package the lives of Celestial, Roy, and Andre (Celestial’s childhood best friend who becomes central to the plot) to suit the short memory of a 24-hour news cycle, and every single page feels personal, messy, flawed, funny, sad, helpless, and hopeful all at once, even if the balance of those emotions shifts a lot from chapter to chapter. In Jones’s world, everyone is a sinner and no one is a saint, which only amps the novel’s power: if none of us are saints, then this could happen to any of us, and illusions of “deserved it” or “didn’t deserve it” are out the window.

I wondered, often, if the book would have felt much different if Roy had actually done what he was accused of. Of course it would have, at least somewhat–I do think that rape is a particularly horrible and unforgivable crime, and I would have trouble sympathizing with a protagonist who committed it–but I imagine that the novel’s sense of injustice would have remained.

An American Marriage calls into question whether anyone deserves to experience the horror of prison–much less to experience the incessant, creeping fear that you might go to prison–and it seems to ask us to imagine a future without that horror and fear, which brings me around to the beginning of this review:

An American Marriage is a book that asks us things, and while it is not a work of dystopian science fiction, it draws from the same well. It asks: How did we get here? How do we get out? How do we heal?

Jones doesn’t provide answers, but the radical empathy and virtuoso storytelling of An American Marriage do feel like a start. 5/5 stars.


P.S. If you’re as enraged as I am that wrongful convictions happen, The Innocence Project does great work to free the wrongfully convicted. There are also many nonprofits dedicated to sending books to people who are currently incarcerated to help them pass the time and to prepare them for life beyond bars.

P.P.S. A personal note: I’ve been blindsided with a serious health issue this month and am pulling back from a number of personal and professional commitments while I recover. I will be reading, writing, and blogging less in the meantime, but I promise that I haven’t abandoned this blog! I do plan to return to a regular schedule once I’m feeling better, and hope you’ll stick around till then. (I am still tweeting regularly if that’s your thing.) Thanks!


My copy of An American Marriage came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 2.9.18

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 I am in Deadline Hell, which means–of course–that I am really excited about two novels that I hope will help me procrastinate take my mind off things! Let’s go!


9780374279660Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: my local library

why I’m excited: I’ve flirted with this book ever since I first spotted it on the New Releases shelf, but its cover, which I find frankly creepy and embarrassing, always put me off. Still, the premise is intriguing–a drug-addicted, girlfriend-experience sex worker becomes slowly unhinged and is maybe a terrorist–and it’s short. (I love short books!) I’m hoping Ultraluminous will fill the stylish, pulpy hole in my heart left by Atomic Blonde, one of my favorite movies of 2017.

9781616201340An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: my local library

why I’m excited: This book and I have had a whirlwind affair: last week, I first learned of it when I read this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about the conversation that inspired it; in the past few days, I’ve read rave review after rave review; yesterday, I resolved to buy this book; today, I encountered a “Lucky Day” copy at my local library (3 week loan with no option for renewals, effectively allowing you to skip the hold line), and subsequently walked out of the branch feeling like I’d won the lottery. The novel, about a marriage shattered by a wrongful incarceration, sounds incredible in every way, and I’m damn near sure I’ll love it–so you can expect I’ll still buy a copy at some point. I’m just happy I get to have a head start on loving it.


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!