Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler
I started and stopped writing this review a handful of times.
Every time I started writing, I thought about the beautifully lyrical quality of Stephanie Danler’s writing in Sweetbitter and I just had to stop. A unique compliment for a debut novel, I found every ounce of Sweetbitter to be dripping with visual visceral language. I’m such a sucker for a beautifully written sentence.
So when I came to write about it, I felt weirdly inadequate. Like my writing is a little sucky today, and it’s embarrassing because I’m trying to tell you how awesome and beautiful Sweetbitter was, and instead I’m just writing run-on sentences with no sign of interesting or inventive language.
Which is why I’m not a novelist, I suppose.
Sweetbitter was the book my brand new blind-date-in-person book club picked as our second selection. I hesitate to, as I heard someone else, call Sweetbitter a food memoir. I’m also hesitant to call it a tell-all, as some have. At its heart, I think Sweetbitter is a coming of age novel. It just happens to be set in one of New York City’s most laudable restaurants.
Yet there seems to be undue focus on the restaurant industry as the setting of a classic storytelling format. Tess comes, brimming with hope, to make New York her home. She says, in traditionally idealistic NYC newbie language:
“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge…”
Oh common girl. Only people who have yet to do any growing up at all believe that their lives start or stop. We have one life, you live it. But it emphasizes well Tess’s naivety at the start of the book. A 22-year-old diving into New York to become a person she can’t quite define yet, Tess is lusting for every experience possible. And she happens to discover them after lucking into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant as a backwaiter.
The “protagonist” in Sweetbitter is everything I am not.
Tess is the total anti-hero. She’s irresponsible. Drunk or high at least 80% of the novel. She’s infatuated with the most horrible human being. She’s confused and disoriented. She’s trying to make it in a city that she’s idealized, with a weirdly lucrative profession, not knowing which direction to go, or where to turn when things get rough.
I couldn’t relate, exactly, but I could sympathize.
To a point. I don’t know if you could ever convince me to do that much coke. That’s just unreasonable.
But the way that Tess navigates her life – the bartender she falls in love with, the romanticized notions of intelligence and beauty, the idolization of a clearly unstable woman – is relatively easy to understand. I can imagine being 22 and getting swept away by the city. It’s easy to come from outside and get a little lost in there.
And in getting lost, Tess finds people to cling to. She attaches at the hip to a bartender she works with and an older waiter. She seems to ignore that these two people had a long history before she appeared in their lives, and falls madly in infatuation with the bartender while the waiter just looks at her and laughs. Having your mentor be your competition for your love interest mostly just makes you seem like you have no idea what’s going on.
I could never get on board with her infatuation with the bartender. There was no substance there. She appeared to like this man for the sole reason that he didn’t like her. He ignored her. He made fun of her. He derided her.
Why in the world did she like him? It’s that stupid schoolyard logic that if “he teases you, he must like you!” Don’t we grow out of that garbage? Maybe that was the point all along. Tess just hadn’t really grown out of that stage.
Ultimately, I felt like Sweetbitter showed how Tess grew and changed.
She wasn’t totally acting like a grown-up at the end, but I was happy that she was at least making semi-sensible decisions. Which I suppose is just about all I can ask of a 20-something.
Be relatively sensible. Hopefully it’ll all sort itself out.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Summary TDLR; Not the best in the world.