I had every intention of saving Sweetbitter to read on my trip to New York in a few weeks, but I just couldn’t wait any longer. This book, Stephanie Danler’s debut, was an instant hit two summers ago, and its recent development into a Starz series re-inspired my interest. I devoured Sweetbitter just like one would devour a meal at the Union Square Café: slowly, savoring every minute, while still impatiently craving the rest.
“You will develop a palate.”
-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter
From the jacket:
Shot from a mundane, provincial past, Tess comes to New York in the stifling summer of 2006. Alone, knowing no one, living in a rented room in Williamsburg, she manages to land a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant. This begins the year we spend with Tess as she starts to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing, and privileged life she has chosen, as well as the remorseless and luminous city around her. What follows is her education: in oysters, Champagne, the appellations of Burgundy, friendship, cocaine, lust, love, and dive bars. As her appetites awaken- for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, belonging- we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle. With an orphan’s ardor she latches onto Simone, a senior server at the restaurant who has lived in ways Tess only dreams of, and against the warnings of her coworkers she falls under the spell of Jake, the elusive, tatted up, achingly beautiful bartender. These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s most exhilarating and painful lesson of all.
If I struggled with any aspect of this book, it was Tess, our whiny narrator. Sweetbitter is categorized as a “coming-of-age” novel, but by the end, I had a hard time believing Tess had truly matured into an adult. The so-called “romance” between Tess and Jake frustrated me immensely. At one point, Jake told Tess to wipe off her lipstick because she looked like a clown, and I just sat back and wondered why she would put up with a guy like that. If you know me, you know I don’t really give a crap about being in a relationship, so Tess’s desperation to be with Jake that badly irked me. I think Tess was supposed to come of age by realizing how silly it is for her to tolerate the constant shit that Simone and Jake give her, but even in the last few pages, Tess still felt immature and whiny. I’m not sure she learned anything from her post-grad identity crisis. I wanted to see her grow more, but she was too busy worrying about what other people thought of her, and drinking too much to try to forget about it.
“She belonged to herself only. She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes. And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.”
-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter
I think Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is the kind of book where it really matters when in your life you read it. In all honesty, if I wasn’t a nineteen-year-old dreaming of life in New York, I don’t think I would’ve liked it as much as I did. I also enjoyed all of the commentary on the quirks of the service industry, and the exploration of the special bond restaurant co-workers share with one another. I worked in a fast-casual restaurant for my first year of college, nothing fancy like Tess’s job but closer to a Panera Bread, but still the kitchen environment was entirely similar, and I loved reading Danler’s take on a world I had experienced myself. Parts of Sweetbitter had me cracking up and reminiscing about my own days cleaning fridges and dropping food in front of everyone, so I really felt for Tess, her struggles, and her insecurities in a way I’m not sure someone who hadn’t once worked in a restaurant would understand.
Danler’s fiction is somewhat experimental in that MFA-writing way, but it’s dripping with talent and I’m curious to see what she does next. Though Sweetbitter, like any piece of writing, wasn’t perfect, I wholeheartedly enjoyed my time reading it.
Find this book on Goodreads.