Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

"Sweetbitter" by Stephanie Danler
First published in 2016
352 pages
My rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Short Of It:
This is a tough book to review... I can see how it wouldn't be the right fit for everyone, but overall I liked this novel about testing the waters of adulthood in New York City, set against the backdrop of the gourmet restaurant scene.

The Long Of It:
"Sweetbitter" was a unique reading experience for me. I didn't really like the main character, Tess, and her lifestyle made up of equal parts hedonism, naivete and ambition, but at the same time she reminded me a bit of myself at 18. The disjointed writing style irritated me, and yet I couldn't put the book down. The pretentious foodie talk made me roll my eyes, but it also made my mouth water. I will say: the whole damn thing made me want to get on a plane for a visit to New York City ASAP!

After graduating college, Tess flees her Midwestern hometown for the bright lights and big city with no real goal in mind other than to live. She gets a job as a backwaiter at a fancy New York City restaurant, makes friends with her co-workers and vows to savor every experience presented to her. This includes a hell of a lot of drinking and cocaine, not to mention some unhealthy relationships -- and, as is true of every coming-of-age-novel, some introspection.

The book is divided by season and set during a year in Tess's life -- from her June arrival in NYC to the culmination of, shall we say, her year of self-discovery the following spring. The story is ultimately about Tess's evolution, but the seasons are almost a character in and of themselves. It's a very New York-y novel, and I loved Danler's portrait of the city throughout the year.

Food is the other character in the novel, and it's affected by the seasons as well. In winter with the first snow there's fresh endive and raddichio, spring means tender asparagus. Wine is appreciated year-round. The behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to work at a busy, high-end restaurant in the city was interesting -- and I wouldn't be surprised if it was as just hectic, exciting and drama-filled as Danler makes it sound. She's worked as both hostess and manager in similar-level eateries, so she would know. For Tess and her co-workers, it becomes so much more than a job, it's a way of life -- and some employees stay for life. It sounds like a whole different world than, say, being a waitress at your local Chili's.

I have a feeling "Sweetbitter" is one of those books that seems better and better as time goes on, as the story ripens and matures in the reader's mind, and I don't think I'll soon forget it. But it was definitely not perfect. Perhaps what bothered me the most was all the stuff alluded to but never explained, like what happened to Tess's mother, whom we know is out of the picture, or why exactly Tess fled home with only a note to her father, what her college degree was in (art?) and why she left it in the dust, or even exactly where she's from. I understand that Danler probably left these details out so Tess could represent Anywoman, any young twentysomething drawn to the city because she wants more out of life, but as a reader my mind cried out for more information. Without it, I had a hard time connecting with Tess.

And as an old fuddy-duddy 31-year-old whose crazy partying days are long past, it was sometimes frustrating for me to read about Tess's never-ending self-destructive behavior and her commitment to "take every experience on the pulse." That's part of growing up -- I suppose I had a similar philosophy when I headed off to college -- but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to go back and change some things. I guess it's my latent mom instinct coming out, wanting to shake Tess by the shoulders and tell her to take a good long look at her life.

In addition, the writing was sorta choppy and abrupt at times, which perhaps worked with the story but was sometimes irritating to read. There was a lot of food and wine talk that was over my head. And there's really not a ton of plot; it's definitely a character portrait. I can see how "Sweetbitter" wouldn't appeal to every reader, but if it sounds at all interesting to you, I recommend picking it up and just diving right in. If you're not into it after 50 pages, then it might not be for you. If you are into it, prepare yourself for the bumpy ride of maturing into adulthood -- and all the bitter and sweet experiences it takes to get there.


  1. I thought it was interesting how much information about Tess was just left out, because obviously there's got to be a reason for that. To me, it spoke to just how immersed in this new job she was, to the exclusion of everything else in her life. It became her whole world and everything else just fell away. Did you notice that her name wasn't even mentioned until about 100 pages or so into the book? The whole novel is pretty unique and intriguing on a few levels. And I didn't *love* it, but I liked it and definitely appreciate it.

    1. Oh, I totally noticed the name thing. Apparently I'm a super detail-oriented reader who just has to know everything, because not too far in I actually flipped to the book blurb to see if her name was there (which, lucky for me, it was!).

      I agree with you about why Danler left out all that background about Tess -- and I also think it was meant to show that Tess came to the city to start fresh; everything in the past was irrelevant to her new job, her new persona and her new life. It makes sense, and I can understand Danler's decision to write it that way. Still, I wanted to know more!

  2. I haven't read the book but I often find myself struggling to understand why some important details are weaved into the background of the story.
    I'm one of those readers that always wants a more conclusive ending! "Blood of Olympus" just killed me!

    1. I agree -- I like my endings happy and wrapped up neatly with a bow! No vague, let-the-reader-decide conclusions for me!


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