Stephanie Danler speaks from experience when she describes, in this excellent book, the life of the staff at a high end restaurant. Though we don't know the name of the fictional restaurant that is the setting of the novel, we do know that Danler worked at the famous Union Square Cafe in Manhattan. It is a good bet that her novel is a thinly veiled account of behind the scenes shenanigans at many a high end restaurant headed by a famous chef. The pecking order among staff is not a fluid one. If lucky one works up the ladder from bussing to back waiters, waiters, head waiters, etc. Presiding over this kingdom are sommeliers, barmen, sou-chefs, chefs and so on. Some few never advance and there is a fair amount of back biting and undermining especially of the lowly "new girl or guy."
The novel is divided into the four seasons of the year with plenty of food, wine, sex and rock and roll. It is no surprise that food is associated with sex, you can hark back to the earliest novels such as Fieldings "Moll Flanders" to find them paired up. Of course the staff is young, and unlike past times, most are college grads or actors waiting for the right job to come along. They consume drugs, a lot of drugs, and liberally sample the wines, along the way becoming familiar with the best vintages often showing off their knowledge to their customers, trolling for big tips. Everyone knows his place, rarely stepping over the line, keen to the tiniest detail. Should a surprise visit from the health department inspector occur, the staff goes into action worthy of a military combat drill.
The plot of the book is thin. It revolves around three main characters, Tess (new girl), Jake (bartender-gradschool dropout), and Simone (senior server, older veteran and mentor). We know little about their backgrounds. Tess is fresh out of college from the midwest and comes to the big city to find herself. She has no idea of where she is headed, but she wants to be in love with the city. Her family is never mentioned, and she substitutes her colleagues for family, with Simone the mother figure as mentor. Jake is scruffiluy handsome, his relationship with Simone a mystery, and Tess is drawn to the danger that he exudes. Like all coming of age stories, Tess experiences the loss of innocence and struggles to find her place among those more experienced and jaded.
Danler is an accomplished writer and her description of the restaurant and the characters after hours life rings true and real. Her characters are well drawn and the reader, while rooting for Tess, is aware that life doesn't always have neat endings. I liked this book a lot, there is depth to it and the writing is superior. I recommend this novel as a good winter's weekend read.