Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, SWEETBITTER, belongs in the modern coming-of-age canon—which is far too often missing the works of female writers. Delving into the realities of white, middle-class life in NYC in the mid-2000s, SWEETBITTER is a smart read that would pair perfectly with a glass of sauvignon blanc or with a day spent on the beach. This book, from the eye-catching jacket, Danler’s origin story, and the literary acclaim, screams trendy.
I strongly recommend this book, and not just because I relate to it. I think it truly transcends the millennial label because it’s a story about finding where you want to go in life, and, sometimes, the road to get there is messy. In spite of it all, this book argues that the road to a destination may not be glamourous, but it’s never a waste.
Set in an anonymous but ritzy Union Square restaurant that caters to the upper crust of society, it is here our aimless narrator, Tess, snags a job working as a backwaitress. She soon finds herself the mentee of older and experienced waitress, Simone. Of course, it’s up for debate if Simone is really qualified to give life lessons, but, nonetheless, Tess latches on to her in a desperate attempt for guidance.
Tess is soon sucked into a love triangle between herself, Simone, and Jake, the aloof bartender who is very handsome (and he knows it). What follows is a haphazard trek through 2 a.m. restaurant shifts, sunrise drug usage, boozy benders, weepy (also boozy) confessions, and harsh realities.
It doesn’t take long for Tess to realize that Simone might not have all the answers she’s looking for, but she remains under her tutelage for lack of a better option. Her palette for life’s experiences expands as she discovers more and more about herself and her friends, but Simone’s life lessons don’t come cheap. It seems that the more Tess learns about the world, the more she realizes that she lacks the upward mobility to become a server. As Tess discovers more about Jake, she becomes increasingly self-conscious, unsure of where she stands in this strange relationship.
While Tess’s life seems directionless as she spends her time cleaning tables, fighting over the best clothes, and learning the wine menu, Danler’s writing is anything but meandering. The flavors we read as Tess sips and eats her way through the restaurant’s delicacies and the gossipy snippets she overhears from customers as she dashes around the restaurant are gripping and provide structure in Tess’s life.
As the novel barrels along, readers are forced to grapple with the question of who is right—Tess or Simone? Is Simone a bitter woman, resigned to fate, or is Tess a sickeningly sweet child who will soon discover that her naïveté is cloying? Is there an answer? The open endedness is what makes SWEETBITTER a truly savory experience that would result in three Michelin stars.