It’s 2006. There are no iPhones; Williamsburg is on the precipice of gentrification; and Tess is pounding the pavement looking for a job. Compelling, sensory, and uncannily relatable, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter follows a young woman’s sensory awakening after moving to New York City and taking a job as a backwaiter at one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants in Union Square.
The novel opens a powerful imperative: “You will develop a palate.”
“You will kiss the wrong boy,” another interlude begins. “It was an easy prophecy. They were all the wrong boy.”
These second person imperatives introduce prominent sections of the novel, lending a potent immediacy to Tess’s experiences. They also serve to enhance the story’s relatability, connecting our own histories to the events unfolding on the page.
Dealing with tropes of the genre like unattainable love and issues of identity, Sweetbitter initially comes across as a typical coming-of-age novel. Yet, Danler’s use of language and description sets the novel apart from its peers. Rich, sensory descriptions of food and drink allow readers to taste their way through the entirety of Sweetbitter‘s 368 pages. Both the events of the novel and the rotation of food are bound to the passing seasons. We taste oysters, figs, heirloom tomatos, and earthy truffles. Danler’s descriptions of sex are equally sensory and specific. As Tess explores her palate sexually and gastronomically, we hone in on tastes, textures, and poetic pleasure taken from her experience.
While Tess is our first person protagonist, we receive little to no backstory. Tess exists in a vacuum—a 22 year old hungry for experiences. “Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge,” she tells us. Her backstory is MIA, which brings the focus to this particular moment: her first year living in New York—what for Tess seems to be her first year living.
Tess’s hunger for experience verges on an eclipse of individuality. She is transparent. She wants everything and nothing. Sweetbitter flawlessly portrays this facet of the Millennial experience: restlessness, longing, and confusion. She makes it clear she doesn’t hold secret aspirations to create anything, but we do get a glimpse of her desired future:
“The vision that accompanied me on my drive was a girl, a lady actually. We had the same hair but she didn’t look like me. She was in a camel coat and ankle boots. A dress under the coat was belted high on her waist. She carried various shopping bags from specialty stores and as she was walking, pausing at certain windows, her coat would fly back in the wind. Her boot heels tapped on the cobblestones. She had lovers and breakups, an analyst, a library, acquaintances she ran into on the street whose names she couldn’t call to mind. She belonged to herself only. She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes. And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.”
Despite her aimlessness and longing, Tess holds this woman up as a hazy objective.
While the full cast of her colleagues have their cameos, Tess is primarily concerned with Simone and Jake. The most knowledgeable server at the restaurant, Simone takes an interest in Tess, introducing her to the basics of Oenology, and the art of gastronomy. In Simone, Tess finds a role model—an inherently glamorous sophisticate who treats serving as an art form in itself. Their connection is charged, fierce, until Simone’s veneer is abruptly stripped away.
While Danler’s portrayal of Simone is rich and detailed, Tess’s love interest Jake is a flat stereotype. I find this less of an oversight than an artistic choice. As a portrait of the Hot, Elusive Badass with the emotional range of a 13 year old, Jake nails it. Sure, we might not delve into his hopes and dreams, or build a robust love story between Jake and Tess, but Danler does capture a clear picture of the interaction between naiveté and damage. Their relationship forms a commentary on our attraction to the unattainable and tendency to seek out partners capable of hurting us.
Interviews aside, it was immediately clear that Danler had racked up her years in the hospitality industry. From the describing the particular click of separating stacked glasses straight out of a hot dishwasher to the poetic interludes that illustrate the tunnel vision experience of the dinner rush, Sweetbitter delivers on its premise. The restaurant reads as a living breathing establishment.
Throughout reading Sweetbitter, the question of likability is raised.As a character, Tess lacks agency, displaying a tendency to disappear into expectations of others. Quickly, she is defined by her work and her colleagues’ behavior becomes her own.Tess’s uncomfortable level of self-absorption and tendency to lean into destructive behavior makes it easy for us to criticize her in a similar way critics pick apart the characters on Lena Dunham’s Girls. I found myself considering this double standard between the acceptance of female characters like Tess and problematic male characters in pop culture like Don Draper. With Tess, there are moments where we’re uncomfortable with her choices to an extent that I doubt we would experience had Danler chosen a young male protagonist.
“I think we really don’t like to see women making mistakes, or women in peril,” Danler said. “I come back to that again and again, and to have her be likable—again, I do find her likable—that’s a fairytale. That’s not a story of a real girl who is testing all of life’s experiences on herself.”
We accompany Tess on her first year in the city, throughout her highs and lows. There are moments that remind me of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” Possibility is crackling on the horizon, until quite suddenly, the bottom drops out. When Sweetbitter comes to a close, the reader isn’t left with a tidy resolution. There is no grand moment of epiphany ushering in a new manner of living. Yet, I found this ambiguity to be one of the most poignant aspects of the novel. Like real life, we ask a lot of our stories, and sometimes they refuse to hand us answers on a platter, but life goes on.