It’s brave if you make it, foolish if you fail.”
I actually read this book a month or so ago and have been sitting on this drafts for a bit. Whoops. Sweetbitter was a highly anticipated book from Stephanie Danler and was given to me for Christmas by my roommate. I have a huge obsession with big cities, and New York was one of my favorites to visit. This novel was actually recently turned into a STARZ series and I am also excited to see how the show stands up to the book. Sweetbitter took a total of seven years for Danler to write, and thus I had very high expectations.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
The bestselling novel about a young woman’s coming-of-age, set against the glitzy, grimy backdrop of New York’s most elite restaurants. Now a STARZ Original Series.
Newly arrived in New York City, twenty-two-year-old Tess lands a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant. What follows is the story of her education: in champagne and cocaine, love and lust, dive bars and fine dining rooms, as she learns to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing life she has chosen. As her appetites awaken—for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, and belonging—Tess finds herself helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle. In Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler deftly conjures with heart-stopping accuracy the nonstop and high-adrenaline world of the restaurant industry and evokes the infinite possibilities, the unbearable beauty, and the fragility and brutality of being young in New York.
At first, I really enjoyed the book. The writing style was beautiful not only as a whole, but on the sentence level as well. It seemed so fitting for the setting, an overwhelming New York City and fine dining restaurant. But then the further I got into the book, the less I liked it.
Each time I put down the book, it was harder to pick up. I found myself forgetting what was going on between reading sessions. However, I can’t blame that on my memory. The plot was just simply nonexistent. Technically this is a coming of age book (which isn’t really my style either), but nothing really happened in Tess’ life. One moment she’s learning about wine and the next she is snorting coke with her coworkers. There’s little to no transition and development to get to that point in her life. While drugs are looked at nonchalantly (something I actually liked about this book), there is little to explain why Tess is actually doing the things she is doing. There is little to no contact with family or explanation as to why they’re really not present. It is almost as if Tess just appeared one day rather than moved to New York from a small town.
I was also extremely underwhelms by the other characters. I found myself confusing them, unable to keep them separate. They each felt underdeveloped and flat. Most of them were cardboard cutouts, only existing to further the idea of Tess rather than being individual people themselves. I was also underwhelmed by Simone and Jake, though the whole book seemed to be centered around her obsession with them. It is clear that Tess only sees them how she wants to see them, but I think the book would have benefitted more from showing that Simone and Jake are real people, not just the romanticized images that Tess wanted them to be. For a book that took so long to write, I expected much more from the plot and character development.
Sweetbitter is a hit and miss. It’s full of beautiful descriptive writing that makes it impossible to give it a completely bad review, but the characters and plot were extremely lackluster. It’s a decent book for a beach read, but I’ll probably enjoy the show better. I give it 3/5 stars.