Sweetbitter is one of those rare books that sits in the middle of a Venn diagram between a) fun beach reads b) books smart enough to be praised by the New York Times and extensively covered by NPR. This makes it a natural must-read for summer.
The story follows Tess, one of the first female protagonists ever to admit that she’s attractive (a departure from the typical klutz-gets-a-makeover trope). Throughout Sweetbitter, we see how Tess’s sexuality both hides her intelligence and gives her power.
Tess’s age, 22, was a purposeful choice on the part of author Stephanie Danler. She shared on Cosmo’s lit podcast that she had noticed very few coming-of-age stories about women in their 20’s. (Which seems crazy, but is true.)
Tess describes her entry into New York City with an encounter that seems perfectly banal, yet prescient. She walks into a Dunkin’ Donuts to make change, and the cashier says he remembers her from the day before. She tries to tell him that’s impossible, but he insists he knows her.
The feeling this gives her is compounded when she lands a job at one of the best restaurants in New York City, and is immediately thrust in over her head. She fails hard, but quickly finds family in her coworkers. This colorful group goes out every night to “Park Bar” and does cocaine, sleeps with one another and drinks so much it will hurt your liver just to read about it.
While Tess is dulling her senses, she’s also discovering them. This happens in part thanks to her female mentor, Simone. A francophile who everyone else in the restaurant finds pretentious, Simone teaches Tess to truly taste food and wine. Mostly, she teaches her about the concept of terroir, or the traces of earthy origin that you can taste in each sip of wine or bite of food. Tess, who can barely name a wine class beyond “French?” internalizes Simone’s advice, which is often very profound. (For example, to taste wine, Simone advises her to sit with it, let it change, and then let it change you.)
Danler herself ended up quitting her service job to work in the wine industry, so it’s no coincidence that wine becomes an agent of transformation in Tess’s self discovery.
Tess falls hard for Jake, Simone’s friend/brother-figure, who Simone seems to have an odd connection with. He’s the perfect mysterious asshole for the 50 Shades of Grey era, written with a much better ear for what actual men are like. As Tess enters an odd love triangle with the two of them, she starts to see her own identity unraveling.
In many ways, Stephanie Danler’s writing is lovely and smart. She often projects her more ornate thoughts through Simone, or her love of philosophical quotes through Jake. Her writing about food and wine is incredibly evocative, and her ability to focus on gritty truths (like dates interrupted by puking in handbags) cancels out her fancier tendencies.
A first-time novelist, every so often she’ll try a line that leaps too high only to bellyflop upon landing, like “he masticated me with his eyes” or “her face was a sequin.” But those are sometimes the cost of ambitious prose.
My main concern with Sweetbitter at first was that it seemed more like a memoir than a novel. Would we get a real plot here, or would it mostly just be a manifesto about being a certain kind of woman in a certain kind of place? I was pleasantly surprised by Sweetbitter’s ability to offer a real, solid coming-of-age story.
Overall, Sweetbitter is an anthem for the service industry, and the incredibly vibrant and unique culture the food world provides. Tess doesn’t have to know much about New York City, because she finds its DNA immediately, right in the heart of her job. It’s challenging, it’s fulfilling, and it teaches her just as much, if not more, than she learned in school.
I can imagine that this book won’t just appeal to women who want a 20-something heroine, but to anyone who has balanced a tray, served a drink or survived on tips.
It’s also a cocaine novel without being a capital-C cocaine novel. In some ways, its frenzied, drug-addled feeling reminded me of a Jay McInerny book, but from a female perspective, and outside of the 80’s.
Danler shared on the podcast I linked to above that she had originally come to New York with a cocaine novel in hand, and realized that wasn’t really the answer to her literary dreams. I’m sure that element found its voice here.
Sweetbitter itself is an addictive experience. Learning about Tess’s free-fall into enjoyment of food, wine, sex and New York City is all-consuming, and you’ll find yourself ducking out of daily obligations to keep reading it. The book even made me want to get into wine, which I’ve never particularly liked. Simone, as annoying as her character is, taught me as much about wine as she taught Tess.
This book will make you look at your own “coming of age” with kindness and scrutiny. It will also teach you to be more curious about the immediate world surrounding you. In that sense, Sweetbitter does exactly what a good book should do.