Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
I read the hype surrounding Sweetbitter before I read the novel itself. This brilliant debut by young American author Stephanie Danler has been in the spotlight for a few months, after Knopf picked up the book in an attention-grabbing six-figure deal. It’s sat on the bestseller list in the US for weeks – celebrities are posing for photos with it, along with hundreds of Instagram users. Reviewers are raving. Why the fuss? Well, Danler herself is charming and personable in interviews, and has written a novel based on her experiences. Her book is fiction, but will definitely strike a chord with anyone who’s ever worked in hospitality, or eaten in a restaurant, or been 22 and trying to figure it all out. And it’s very, very good.
As with Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Sweetbitter offers us a protagonist bearing hardly any backstory: ‘Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at 7 a.m.,’ she says. Twenty-two-year old Tess doesn’t even reveal her name until at least halfway through the novel. What separates Sweetbitter from the cliché coming-of-age-in-New-York tale is that Tess has no particular ambition; her focus is on her own development. After obtaining a coveted position as a back waiter in a prestigious Manhattan restaurant, Tess finds herself swept up in the world of hospitality and fixated on two of her colleagues – bartender Jake and server Simone. As we spend a year with Tess, these relationships steer her experiences and education in New York. While Jake and Simone provide some interesting plot twists and turns (Tess’s infatuation with Simone, her mentor, is particularly intriguing), Danler really shines in sharing her knowledge of the dynamic world of a restaurant with the reader. While occasionally slipping into lyrical descriptions that verge on pretentious, the strength of the Sweetbitter lies with its vibrant cast of characters who are a pleasure to spend time with.
Sweetbitter is at once a coming-of-age story and a love letter to good food, better wine and New York City. Lush, pacey and addictive, this debut definitely lives up to the hype.
Stella Charls is the marketing and events coordinator for Readings.