Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
“You will develop a palate,” Sweetbitter begins, and the rest of the novel, structured into four parts which trace the seasons of a year, describes that process in visceral detail. I never lived in New York. I was never a waitress. Nevertheless, I followed Tess’s first year of adult life with a combination of ardent fascination and deep, sometimes uncomfortable empathy.
We meet Tess when she has just arrived in New York, and learn that she quickly begins working at an unnamed but clearly-upscale restaurant in the Union Square area. Her life is vivid with the markers of new adulthood. A scene where she watches a sunset from the roof of her new apartment building while drinking Chardonnay out of a mug was particularly powerfully-drawn.
Danler’s writing is beguiling and beautiful, relatable and unique at the same time. She animates what it’s like to be a young woman in a new, foreign place (the city but also the restaurant world). Tess’s voice is wry, smart, at once worldly and filled with wonder. It’s a testament to the gorgeous writing in Sweetbitter that it manages to be both deeply specific and absolutely universal.
The restaurant is its own world. We meet Tess’s peers, with whom she drinks and stays out far too late. We also meet the older and fascinating Simone and the mysterious Jake, whose inexplicable (and almost inexcusable) rudeness towards Tess is explained when their relationship finally tumbles into romance. Simone and Jake have a history, which is teased out over the course of the book and the year.
More than anything, this book is about developing a palate as a young adult in New York. It’s about oysters and uni and truffles and myriad kinds of wine, about cocaine and cheap beer, about friendship and sex and loyalty and identity. At one point, listening to cars driving in the rain, Tess muses that she “couldn’t imagine another life.” Reading this novel, neither could I.
As Sweetbitter’s year – and Tess’s – comes to an end, many things are changing. The last quarter of the book felt like a sensory kaleidoscope to me – so many scenes are lush with details, sound, smell, taste, sight, and touch. As she ponders a life beyond the restaurant, Tess muses, “My life had been so full I couldn’t glimpse beyond it. I didn’t want to. And really, would it ever be as loud?”
Have you read Sweetbitter? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!
Want to buy Sweetbitter? Visit our friends at your local bricks-and-mortar independent bookstore or buy via Indiebound by clicking the link here!