Sweetbitter // Stephanie Danler

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.

8 thoughts on “Sweetbitter // Stephanie Danler

  1. I loved this book – but wholeheartedly agree with you. When people ask me if they should read it I usually say do you LOVE New York? or have you lived there? All of my friends who lived in the city in their early 20s loved it, and curiously all my friends who moved to DC after college did not. This book is SO New York ❤

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oooooh awesome! I’ll be working at my internship during the week and then my baby cousin is being baptized there over the weekend, so I’m not sure how much free time I’ll have, but I’m still so excited! Do you have any favorite spots or must-see’s in the city?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. so fun! so many options and totally depends on the neighborhood but generally central park is delightful, bluestone lane is one of my favorite coffee shops, and in terms of museums – the MET and museum of natural history are amazing! ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’ve heard soooo many good things about Bluestone Lane, so I’m definitely trying to get there! I went to MoMA and the Strand during my last trip, so this time I’m hoping to get to the Met and McNally Jackson. Thanks so much for the recs; I hope you have a nice trip as well! 🙂

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  2. Great review, and love that picture! I’ve heard mixed things about this book, but the cover looks beautiful. Whiny narrators are always a red flag for me, so I might not pick this one up for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww thank you! I absolutely adore the cover too. I heard mixed things before reading SWEETBITTER, and though I did enjoy it, Tess is one of the whiniest narrators I’ve ever read. I’d definitely advise to stay away if that’s a red flag for you! Happy reading! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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