Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is gritty, raw, intense, illustrative, and completely full of feeling. I didn’t really know what to expect when starting Danler’s debut novel, but I can assure you that I finished it feeling like I wanted to read it again.
The story begins when Tess is making the move to New York City from somewhere vaguely implied to be the middle-of-nowhere-USA without looking back. Unlike so many others who migrate to NYC, she doesn’t come with an agenda. She isn’t pursuing a career in acting, singing, or painting; she just feels a pull towards the city.
Tess gets a job in a high-end restaurant and as she’s brought on for training, we’re taken on her whirlwind journey to become a part of the fast paced and unforgiving environment. She has this strong drive to belong, but at first she seems so pliable and I felt myself rooting for her to get her sea legs and find her way.
The book is filled with lavish descriptions of food, wine, booze, drinking and partying. As can be predicted in a consuming environment, Tess falls for the mysterious bartender and becomes the mentee of mature woman who gives her an education in wine and other life lessons. It turns out that these two have a powerful connection that Tess will eventually have to face if she wants either of them in her life.
I wasn’t sure about this one at first because the flow felt a little choppy, but it quickly won me over. It felt real and bare. It’s definitely a character driven novel (rather than plot driven) as the story follows Tess through her first year working at the restaurant.
This is one of those books that I filled with post-it notes because so many phrases stuck out to me. Here are a few of my favorites:
“People got together through alcohol and the process of elimination.”
“’It’s a dangerous game, isn’t it? The stories we tell ourselves.’”
“Sometimes my sadness felt so deep it must have been inherited.”
“’I’m sick of that,’ I said. ‘Young, young, young that’s what I get, all day every day. But I know your secret.” I lowered my voice and pushed myself towards him. ‘You are all terrified of young people. We remind you of what it was like to have ideals, faith, freedom. We remind you of the losses you’ve taken as you’ve grown cynical, number, disenchanted, compromising the life you imagined. Now me? I don’t have to compromise yet. I don’t have to do a single thing I don’t want to do. That’s why you hate me.’”
I absolutely recommend Sweetbitter and am looking forward to seeing what Stephanie Danler comes out with next!