I first heard about Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler on Twitter, though I am not sure who mentioned it or why. So I did some research and while I do love my crime fiction, I thought it was time for a change. General fiction written by women is another passion of mine, especially debut novels by young authors. Sweetbitter offered me the promise of a coming of age story in contemporary New York City and food. What else could I ask for? So, I asked the publisher for a review copy and I got sent one with the European cover, which is to die for:
Readers will get to know the novel’s narrator and main character only through her life, and she remains nameless during the first half of Sweetbitter. But we do know that she is a young woman escaping her small town and moving to New York City on her own. Upon her arrival she decides to look for a job at a restaurant since she has previously worked at a coffee shop. Thanks to her naivité and her ambition she directly applies to the city’s most fashionable restaurant only to find herself with a job after what she deemed a mediocre interview. And this is the moment where the story really starts. Long shifts, a learning curve and her relationship with a team that feels like a family but does not act like one. And of course, love.
As a young woman in NYC, Tess – whose name we learn after someone calls her in a bar – is hungry for things that she did not even know existed. At the restaurant she meets Simone, ten years her senior – aptly named after the great De Beauvoir – and an expert in wine and fine dining. Simone is not strickingly gorgeous, but she has travelled the world, she knows her wines, and she becomes Tess’ mentor and guardian. She is described as blonde, always wearing red lipstick and quoting poets and philosophers who Tess has not read yet. As Simone takes her under her wing she becomes a pupil to Simone’s learning that can only be explained because she lived in Europe. As a European I always find Americans’ views about us fascinating: Apparently we are all glamourous and very, very cultivated).
And with Simone comes Jake. Neither Tess nor do we know the truth behind their relationship, but we soon learn that the past ties them together with reasons that we can’t even begin to grap. It is in the relationship among Simone, Tess and Jake that relies some of the beauty of the novel that has been described as HBO’s Girls meets Kitchen Confidential. However, Danler’s real strength as a writer comes out when she writes about food, which charts Tess’ own coming of age of story. From not having tasted an oyster in her life to lusting after them, from not differentiating wine further than red/white to enjoying a glass of a delicate and expensive bottle, she evolves from smalltown girl to New Yorker.
Tess’ evolution as a character can be mapped through her consumption. Of the city’s culture. Of food. And of drugs. The novel openly addresses Tess and her colleagues’ use of drugs but for recreational and professional use. With shifts finishing in the am, the people who make NYC’s restaurants work are a community on their own, with their own times, traditions and schedules. So much so that they have their own spots for after-work drinking and eating. Danler really honours NYC’S reputation as ‘the city that never sleeps’ and sheds some light on those people who make everything work, and she knows what she is talking about. Weeks after I finished reading the novel I learned that it was partly inspired by the author’s experience at the famed Union Square Café in New York City, where she was still working when she made headlines for a six-figure, two-book deal.
After some consultation over Twitter I learned that you either adored or dreaded Sweetbitter. I loved it: The sensual writing, the complex and iconic female characters, the feeling that comes from reading of youth escaping your hands, of time running out. The thrilling idea that it’s now or never and we can eat the world. Sweetbitter is a chant to love, life and food for a generation that is constantly being critised for our apparent lack of ambition and maturity. Maybe we do not want to grow up because the future is uncertain and the present is too good to be wasted. Or at least, that’s what I learnt from Danler’s masterful debut. An author to keep a close eye on while we work hard, read, drink wine and live.
Sweetbitter is currently being adaptated into a TV show by Starz, with an upcoming 2018 release in which Danler is actively working. And even though I love watching TV I encourage you all to read the novel first (from bookworm to bookworm).
Stephanie Danler is an American writer. After working for years at NYC’s restaurants, she joined the New School in order to write a novel. She currently lives in Brooklyn, and after the success of her debut novel Sweetbitter, which became one of 2017’s most awaired releases.