Pierre is a 56-year-old bartender in a Parisian restaurant called Le Cercle. The restaurant is owned by a husband-and-wife team (Henri and Isabelle) in their early 40s. In addition to Pierre, they also employ a Senegalese cook by the name of Amédée, a waitress named Sabrina (with whom, it is assumed, Henri is having an affair), and a new girl, Madeleine, who’s been hired to fill in for Sabrina, who is out with the flu. The title is a bit misleading, as the new waitress is a very minor character and this tale is really about Pierre, the wonderfully – and a bit woefully – composed barman who the reader comes to understand through his gentlemanly behavior and conversations with the others, but especially through his thoughts and observations.
The action takes place over just a few days. On the day the new waitress starts, the boss slips out the backdoor and disappears. The boss’s wife typically shows up mid-day and she is glum when she finds her husband has skipped out. There is a pattern to this behavior, and Pierre and Isabelle assume he has gone off for a tryst with Sabrina. This is the dramatic set-up which makes the workday that much harder for the other employees, being a small operation where every hand is needed to get things done. The day ends with Pierre wondering if the new girl will even return the next day. As the senior employee, Pierre provides some emotional support for the boss’s wife, and we also learn about the dissolution of his own marriage (which he thinks was for the best), his mid-life crisis of two years earlier, and even a bit of his mother’s parenting style. The story develops from here in ways that are significant for the few Le Cercle staff, but without any great action, mostly we get Pierre and details of his daily life: Pierre in his apartment doing domestic chores, worrying about reaching the point where he can claim his pension, attempting to shake off the image of dead leaves from a dream, taking his medications, and trying to muster his energy for the next day.
One might grumble about the rather abrupt ending, but this is in keeping with the slice-of-life narrative and the uncertainty that circumstances have thrust Pierre into – I only wished for a little more time in his company. The Waitress Was New is an everyman kind of story told by a character with an easy and, at times, melancholy grace. We’re there as Pierre habitually wipes down the bar, sizes up and interacts with customers (some of whom need to pay off their tabs), banters with Amédée across the pass-through, and reflects on the path his life has taken. Readers drawn to books for character will definitely be glad to have taken a seat at the bar where, in a switch of typical roles, they get to listen to this personable barman’s story, insights, and observations.