Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler; 2016
“You will develop a palate.” The first line of Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbittter. Nothing much happens for the rest of the book (and purposely so, from Danler’s own admission), except Tess, the main character, develops a palate for life.
With Vanderpump Rules and Below Deck, Bravo has obviously tapped into a popular grittier and more scandalous Upstairs, Downstairs reality show format. Both shows grant access to the behind-the-scenes lives of young people who work and play in the hospitality and food service industries. When I first heard the buzz about Sweetbitter last spring, I’ll admit that I was expecting/hoping for a well-written literary Vanderpump Rules. Sweetbitter accesses the same kind of world, but the book is too unexpectedly highbrow to fit into the category of good-for-you trashy reality TV.
On one hand, Sweetbitter is exactly the kind of book that I’ve been looking for since I graduated high school. There’s a huge absence of well-written, thoughtful books for 18-30s. Choices outside of the literary fiction realm seem to go from angsty YA love stories to divorced women in their thirties who find love again. Sometimes I just want to shout at publishers: HEY! None of these are me! Enter Stephanie Danler, who offers Sweetbitter, a book about a twenty-two-year old right out of college. Now we’re in business. Tess packs up her car and moves from her Midwest roots to – where else – New York City, not because she’s secured a job, but because she wants to start living. She rents a room in Williamsburg and gets a job as a back waiter in one of Manhattan’s top restaurants. We spend the next year with Tess as she first blunders as the new girl, then excels as she learns the “privileged” life of a back waiter. And, of course, she gets caught up in a complicated triangle with two other servers – a bad boy bartender, Jake, and his lifelong server-friend, Simone.
Although I liked the idea of this book, it was ultimately too heavy-handed for my taste in what it’s trying to do. It turns out that I don’t want to read a book about people who read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard in their spare time and who have ridiculous, pretentious conversations about wine the majority of the time; it was impossible to connect with. Tess was too much of an empty shell for me to root for her, and I 100% forgot what her name was until two-thirds of the way through the book when her name was at last finally mentioned again. In the end, there were too many layers of cocaine, stumbling drunkenness, and ugly sex for me to really care about Tess or her journey to self-discovery.
What Sweetbitter does do extremely well is transferring sensory details off the page. It’s full of gorgeous, visceral descriptions of food and drink. The core message of the novel is also important. Sweetbitter reminds its reader to wake up and be present. “Pay attention,” is repeated to Tess throughout the novel. When she finally does pay attention, what ensues is an envolution of senses and a consumption of life.