Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

In brief: Tess’ life starts when she moves to New York. A job as a back waiter has her experiencing food, friendship and romance in ways she never thought possible.

The good: The food descriptions are delicious and the writing is stylish.

The not-so-good: It’s rather elusive – so many hints, not so many reveals.

Why I chose it: Heard great things on social media about it.

Year: 2016

Pages: 356

Publisher: Oneworld

Setting: New York City

My rating: 8 out of 10

I’ve been sitting on the review of Sweetbitter for several weeks now. Why? I did like the book. I think I built it up in my head pre-release as kind of being a foodie Carrie Bradshaw comes to New York City and finds everything she’s ever dreamed of and more. While the protagonist Tess does find a lot more than she expected in NYC, it’s not always rosy and fantastic. Some of it’s weird and some of it is kind of disgusting. It’s a coming of age story that does have a mysticism to it, but it also doesn’t sugar coat things.

Tess tells the story of how her life began when she came to New York from the middle of nowhere. She’s so anonymous, she could be any one of us – we don’t even find out her name until about halfway through the book. (In my head I thought it was Kate. No idea why. Maybe because Kate is a pretty common name and Kate Middleton made it from commoner to princess.) Like other college grads, she needs a job. And she manages to score one at one of the grandest, most revered restaurants in New York. But Tess isn’t even a waiter – no, she has to work her way up to that. She’s a back waiter, gaining behind the scenes induction to food and the service industry. Some of it is beautiful and some of it is cruel. It’s unexpected, yet falls into a kind of routine. Will the restaurant take over Tess’ life like some of her colleagues?

The descriptions of food in Sweetbitter are beautiful – they will have you craving your favourite foods and willing to try foods that you had previously disregarded (like fresh oysters). The writing is so polished that it’s difficult to believe that this is a debut novel – the cadences, the scenes are all described with love and detail. My niggle with this book is that Tess and hence the narrative seems to skirt around the edges, never knowing everything and never delving too deep into the secrets of the restaurant. The relationship between Simone and Jake (senior server and barman, all the characters are labelled by their role in the restaurant) is never clearly defined. Even when Tess tries to find out more, she is shut down. Eventually, she’s okay with that – despite Jake being a sort-of boyfriend.

Tess becomes quite the food snob during her education at the restaurant, but it felt superficial and put on. Like the other characters at the restaurant, none of them are what they seem. They are all pretending to be someone else, hiding their foibles, telling themselves it’s for the sake of the customer, but is it?

Some of the scenes of Sweetbitter are in contrast, quite openly graphic, such as Tess’ drug taking and what she finds under the sink in the bar (yuck yuck yuck). It’s these parts of harsh reality that stop the narrative from floating away dreamily. Because it all feels like a kind of dream never grounding itself. Once I accepted that the book was not going to be what I thought, I quite enjoyed it. The writing is talented, and if the plot had been more grounded, I would have loved it.

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