Book Review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler


Title: Sweetbitter

Author: Stephanie Danler

Published: May 2016

Rating: ★★★★★

Summary: This contemporary coming-of-age novel follows 22-year-old Tess as she begins her life in NYC. Tess has always dreamed of moving to the Big Apple and carving out an exciting life for herself amidst the hustle and bustle. When she scores a job as a “backwaiter” at an established, high-end Manhattan restaurant, she dives head first into a world filled with partying, fine dining, relationships, and consequences.

Thoughts: When I read this book, Goodreads had its average rating at 3.28. Under normal circumstances, I would never pick up a book of my own volition with a rating that low. I have had my eye on this book since it was all the buzz 2 summers ago, so when I recently watched a trailer for the Starz adaptation of this book and then saw the audiobook was available through my library, I decided now was the time to give it a try. I think the narration of this audiobook accounts for at least 20% of my enjoyment of this book. The narrator is spot on with capturing the spirit of this book and adds so much dimension to an already textured story. I highly recommend experiencing this book via audiobook.

The writing in this book is sumptuous. Danler writes in a way that is very accessible and easy to digest, but she also adds sensual description, particularly when you get to experience the fine dining world alongside Tess. I have never before felt so much about a description of a ripened heirloom tomato as I did through Danler’s writing. The way she writes Tess’s experiences and her inner dialogue seemed so realistic. She was able to vocalize much of what a person feels but can’t necessarily put into words. Every so often, there were passages of streams of consciousness and bits of sounds heard at the restaurant would normally be something I would think annoying in a book, but I think it just continued to ground this world in reality because I could so easily imagine thinking those thoughts or hearing those bits of conversation. What I loved most about this story was how raw Tess’s story was written. Tess seemed like someone I could know, or maybe could have been if I followed her path. It was especially effective when Tess’s one bad decision led to another and another and then pretty soon she is spiraling. It was so easy to see how someone goes from point A to point B when they are young and trying to fit in and trying to live an exciting life. I didn’t like all the characters as people, but I really admired how Danler developed the side characters as flawed and playing a role in Tess’s discovery. Tess ends up in the middle of a messed up love triangle clouded in mystery, but it’s an integral part of her growth. The way she sees Simone and Jake in the beginning of the book transforms completely as she learns more and experiences more.

An interesting aspect of the book is that you don’t really know Tess. You get virtually no information about her past. I don’t know where she’s from, exactly what her family dynamic is, whether or not her parents are alive or dead, where she went to school, who she was friends with before NYC, nothing. Usually a person’s past is a huge part of a character’s development, but Danler managed to create a whole person without any of that information. It sort of mimicked the relationships Tess had with the characters in the story. None of them really knew each other. Their relationships didn’t actually go very deep other than their common experience working and their efforts to party. It really showed how isolated Tess was. It also made it really clear that Tess’s life was on a continuum, stretching out long before this story begins and far after, perhaps underscoring that this year in her life was just a sample of the development she would experience.

This is not a happy story that ties everything in a bow at the end, but it gives you a glimpse into one year of this young girl’s life and how she picks herself back up to carry on. You watch her make bad decisions, suffer consequences, and then learn from them. I can understand how this book might not be for everyone. I wouldn’t say a ton happens in the book, as in a plot moving forward to resolve a mystery or discover something. It was more of a book of self-discovery and reflection. I also can see how the drug use and the blunt way in which Danler discusses things could be a bit abrasive for some. I loved this book. I thought it was beautifully written and shares an interesting snippet of this fictional character’s life. I wonder if any of it rings true for someone who may have lived in Tess’s world, working at a swanky restaurant in a fast-moving city. It seemed very realistic to me, but I never had such a life experience. I would recommend this book to anyone who is okay with reading a book that doesn’t have a hard-hitting plot, but rather focuses on nuance; someone who admires exceptional writing; someone who will not wilt at the first sign of unsavory behavior. If you are someone like that, I think you should proceed with haste to read this book–especially in audiobook format. I can’t wait to see what Starz does with this show and think it provides a a treasure trove of storylines.

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