Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Sweetbitter: a novel in which nihilism confronts optimism, in which bodega sandwiches are the counterpart to haute cuisine, in which dollar beers oppose fine wines. In short, this novel is a novel of contradiction and difference.

Before reading it, I’d heard mixed reviews. All the hype before the novel’s release (and the subsequent chatter after) built the novel up to be a paragon in fiction; I’d heard it was literary and dealt with a fast-paced young lifestyle in New York as well as the pettiness of the restaurant industry. Then alternate reviews began to trickle in: it isn’t for everyone, I’d heard, then that some people could really see why others wouldn’t like it, or they particularly didn’t enjoy it.

So when I finally began reading, I tried to do so with an open mind. I understood that many enjoyed it and that I might not. The first few pages reinforced this for me. The narrator is a twenty-two year old female who has decided—with no money, hardly any luggage, no job, and a slightly sketchy apartment—to move to New York and cut all ties with her past life. In some sentences, I was utterly aligned with her; I knew what she was saying was something I felt, or had felt, at moments in my life.

Then the next, I’d realize she was one of those people—the intellectual poseur who longs to look like she reads/like she’s a deep thinker but refuses to put in the work, the young adult who rejects her teenage self out of a sense that she should because she’s “older” now, the clueless not-quite ingénue who jumps into situations thoughtlessly and then bemoans the circumstances she allows.

This narrator isn’t quite the millennial and she isn’t quite the 90s scene girl. She’s an amalgamation: she pretends to be utterly disenchanted with life but she cares, deeply, her optimism leaking through. She’s pretty, but she never says it. No, she just uses her sex appeal to get her a job and then, at the job, reveals how many men are in love with or obsessed with her. Her quickly picked up pills and coke habit becomes something she scoffs at, months later. She wants to be the regular, she wants to be better than. She wants so much.

I think I hate her.

No, I really do. It took a while to come to that conclusion definitely; I had hints of it early on—“I could easily hate her,” I thought, or, “I hate that about her,” or, “Why would she do that? Why would she admit it?”—but there were definitely moments in which I felt for her or could understand where she was coming from. As the novel progressed and she became increasingly embroiled in the various (petty and otherwise) dramas of her world, I realized I like her less. I felt less in line with her. I wanted less to do with her.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate this novel. I don’t want it to seem like I do, but I will tell you now that it’s certainly true, this book isn’t for everyone. It definitely has excellent moments, and it’s not that I regret reading it, per se. I won’t read it again, I can say, and I’ll only recommend it to people who I genuinely feel will enjoy it. The shortcomings slightly overwhelm the successes, in my opinion.

Yikes, I realize I’ve forgotten to tell you what this book is even about! Problem. For your reference: Tess (oops, spoiler. Not really.) arrives in NYC young, idealistic, and looking to make a new life. She quickly gets a job at a high-end restaurant in New York, where she devotes herself to the restaurant life. She falls under the tutelage of older Simone, the most successful server at the restaurant, even while she begins an obsession/occasional flirtation with the bartender Jake, with whom Simone seems to have an oddly closed relationship. As the restaurant becomes more like family to Tess, she begins partying hard (weekends and late night lost to a haze of alcohol, “treats” or pills, and cocaine) with the various others. Yet she longs for more, reaching out to Simone for instruction on fine wines and striving to emulate the easy air of culture that the other woman exudes. Despite this, she can’t seem to stop thinking about Jake, who she begins to orbit around in her own way, just as she orbits around Simone.

In the interest of being fair, something to temper this review: parts of this novel are truly beautiful. It’s clear the language is an important part of the writing (although at times it’s disproportionately beautiful writing to describe the mundane, the disinteresting, or the—and this is the best word for it, I think—icky). The clarity with which certain moments appear is startling in its intensity. I’m not personally a person who knows much about wines—their bodies, their aromas, their origins—although I can certainly enjoy a glass of wine. The narrator’s interest in wine evolves with her friendship/mentee-ship with Simone. The descriptions of wines were well-done and I’m sure a wine connoisseur would appreciate them; for the most part, I enjoyed reading them and feeling a bit as if I was accessing the knowledge which our narrator makes such a large part of her life. It was a bit over my head—I think to fully understand, you need to either be drinking the same wines or already have a fair bit of wine knowledge.

So, I hate the narrator but like the writing—with exceptions. Danler plays with form, and therein lies another major hang-up I have with the novel. The book is split into four sections, titled (how surprising!) Summer, Fall, Winter, and Summer. The narrator is unnamed until the Winter, when we finally discover that her name is Tess. Even she seems surprised by the revelation; until that moment she’s been a variety of nicknames including “New Girl,” “Fluffy,” and “Baby Monster.” The novel is primarily in first person, but it every so often slips into second person. This is inconsistently done: a paragraph will start in first person but one sentence will conclude it in second. Or, a whole sequence of paragraphs in second person will introduce a scene or will serve as a montage to rapidly cover Tess’ progress at the restaurant. It seems as if this point-of-view swap, as well as Tess’ early namelessness, tries to serve as a way to blanket the readers: this isn’t just her, this is you, the book seems to be trying to say. In this, it doesn’t do well at all—after all, Tess is so utterly unsympathetic and pathetic that I maybe only felt like the you could be me for a sentence or two.

To top it off, random strings of spoken word heard through the restaurant act as poems scattered through the novel (is there any order to it? I have no idea, but I can only imagine no. I didn’t go back to find out). If you like these “poems,” I suggest you read Evan Dara’s Flee. It does the technique much more successfully. I found it added absolutely nothing positive to Sweetbitter.

My recommendation is that if you can handle a narrator you can’t stand (but who it seems you’re supposed to align yourself with, pity, and/or like at least a little), if you can stick with reading a book which tries mostly unsuccessfully to experiment with form, if you can deal with a book that, for all that, is pretty formulaic, then you should read this.

The rundown—problems of the novel:

  • Unsympathetic narrator (I can mostly get over this. I just didn’t really care about the bad stuff happening to her at the end. I wasn’t engaged or invested in her life. Which in some ways made problem #3 less so, I suppose.)
  • Unsuccessful experiments of form (Like I said, it doesn’t add anything positive. Whether it takes away is something you can decide, but I think it does.)
  • Unresolved plot points (I won’t go into this, because I’ll spoil the book in all sorts of ways. Believe me when I say that there are some major plot points that just drift away without ever being resolved, just as there are some relationships which seem to evaporate. A lot of the things that happen in the end could SO EASILY be fixed, but instead Tess just accepts it. On top of that, many of the character’s actions come out of left field, and this includes Tess. What she does and how she acts makes absolutely no sense. Ugh. I’m actually getting pretty upset about some of the unresolved/unsupported things right now. As in, one unresolved issue was Tess’ past, what she’s fleeing from that’s so bad, back home. We don’t find out. Aside from a brief scene or mention of home which don’t quite seem to equal up to her actions, we don’t know what this major motivation for her is. Which would, one thinks, really help. So I guess if this book is meant to evoke feeling, any feeling, then it’s pretty much there.)
  • Undeveloped characters (I didn’t talk about this on because it runs rampant through the book but it’s hard to put together more than a sentence or two about. Basically, there are characters who are pretty much only there to serve as an allegory—this girl did this and this is what happens to all girls who do this—but since they’re so minimal as characters and they have nothing deeper than the single action, it’s pretty annoying in the scope of the book. This novel stacks more and more characters on top of each other, to the extent that it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight; characters completely central at one moment fade away, and there are only really three characters who seem deserving of internal lives—and yet, there are fractured, incomplete, nonsensical: their actions are completely uncharacteristic, or else the book hasn’t done a good job of showing us their character. So maybe I had two long sentences to say about it without spoiling anything.)
  • Nonsensical conversations (I’m putting this in the good things category as well, because it really is both. The conversations loop, dip, swirl. They go nowhere and say nothing. The characters imply everything. It’s often too much. Not enough is given to us as readers, nothing is said clearly, we can’t make inferences because of how vague or unresolved conversations are. It seems like almost every character in the novel speaks like this, which isn’t reflective of reality. Sure, there may be the person or two who does, but not everyone. And yet there’s a beauty to some—note, some, it’s way overdone—of these conversations.)

Successes of the novel:

  • Moments of clarity or of clear commentary on society (Whether Tess is trying to talk about someone outside herself or just mentioning something she thought about, many of her observations about herself which can be applied to society or about society outside herself can be candid and revealing—although they often come out of a completely un-optimistic and jaded viewpoint, despite how naïve she really is. So they’re maybe a failing in not being appropriate for the narrator, but they’re a general success.)
  • Descriptions of things (Tess is really sweaty, all the time. And the descriptions of sensations relating to heat or the world around her are really very spot-on at times.)
  • Lyrical scenes (This goes with the descriptions of things. While I don’t think second person added to anything, the montages of life in the restaurant, for example, or of seasons turning, could be done in beautiful language.)
  • Nonsensical conversations (See above.)

I think it was over-hyped. This was the author’s first novel, and I feel pretty certain that I’ll give her second a try. I think she shows a lot of promise, and I didn’t have a bad time reading the book. I do think that there are people I would recommend read it (with reservation—ha, ha, restaurant pun, see?), and there are those whom I would tell to avoid it completely. The often beautiful writing, though, means that—if I haven’t scared you off with this reading of it, and hopefully I haven’t, because I do think it has strengths, particularly in the visceral—this book definitely has something good going on within it.


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