Book Review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

sweet bitter and coffee

Before I even give a plot synopsis, is this not one of the most aesthetically pleasing book covers you’ve ever seen? The colors are perfect – the book itself if a deep wine-stained red, and the dust jacket is a perfect peachy pink that made me take way too many pictures which will pop up a bit later. Also the title and author name are slightly textured to match the crayon-esque font – it’s the small details that sometimes make all the difference.

Now, to dive into the best part: the novel itself. Stephanie Danler’s  Sweetbitter throws the reader into  the “I’m tryna figure sh*t out” mind of twenty-two-year-old Tess, who finds herself living in Brooklyn and working at one of the nicest restaurants in downtown Manhattan. The restaurant quickly becomes her whole world; a place where she latches onto the veteran server and achingly fascinating Simone who takes her under her wing, a place where the alcohol and drugs are always within arms reach, a place where she meets Jake the complicated bartender whom she’s drawn into despite her better judgement, and finally, a place where she becomes part of a family she didn’t know she needed.

sweet bitter in store
~Aesthetic~ pic I snapped when I first spotted Sweetbitter in a perfect boutique shop in Marietta, OH called SP Curated.

Sweetbitter came out in 2016, and I remember seeing it promoted in some of my favorite weekly newsletters as well as some bookstagram accounts I follow. After reading a few blurbs I knew I’d love the book, but like so many things it made its way to the back of my mind, laying dormant for a year or so until recently when I spotted it in one of my favorite shops in the small town of Marietta, OH. [SP Curated is a lovely little shop that I plan to ramble on and on about in a future post.]

~BACK TO THE MATTER AT HAND~ I started Sweetbitter as soon as I got back from said lovely shop, abandoning the other book I was about halfway through. Anyone who enjoys talking about books and their characters will most likely have heard or used the word “relatable” ad nauseam either in a classroom setting or a more casual conversation. It feels overused, and has become a word so easily tossed around that it doesn’t seem to hold much weight anymore. Characters are “relatable” if they do or think anything that another human being might think or do. Conversely, they become “unrelatable” if they do or think something that goes against the norm, or sometimes just don’t do what the you as a reader wanted them to. That being said, what drew me in so fiercely to this novel is the echoes of myself I found in it’s protagonist, Tess.

To name a few spots of overlap: Tess is just a year younger than me, I had also heavily considered moving to Brooklyn (& still might in the near-distant future), and I too had planned on just kind of wandering around, seeing what opportunities I might find that could lead to something else, etc forever and ever until I had established some sort of life. The not-so-important similarities like her penchant for swearing, her desire to fit in but retain her independence, and a keep-your-distance but can’t-look-away approach to a guy that interests her were the ones that made me feel like I was reading about some alternate-universe version of myself.

The best part about seeing parts of yourself in a character is that you get to live vicariously through them, enjoying all the excitement and new experiences, without having to suffer any of the consequences of the exhausting late-nights or the realization that “oh sh*t, I might be low-key addicted to coke right now” – the former being something that most of us have experienced enough in real life, and the latter being something that I have made a point to never experience in life. Either way, when it’s happening to someone like you, but isn’t you, it’s impossible to not feel something – sympathy, envy, judgement, understanding – everything all at once.

Which leads me to the rest of the colorful characters in this novel. Danler manages to create seemingly fully-realized characters despite not giving the reader access to many details concerning their background history, former lifestyle, life outside the restaurant, or anything else that might start crossing into “trying to hard” to characterize territory. Everyone that Tess interacts with feels like someone you easily could’ve met at some point in life. The characters are treated as individuals rather than tropes; the “mysterious” bartender Jake might be kind of an as*hole sometimes, but he’s also got some pretty heavy baggage that motivates a lot of his behavior. And it’s not the overdone, cliched baggage, it’s real stuff that anyone could have had to deal with in life. The wild card co-worker from Moscow who’s always got Adderall at the ready and a line of coke for a chaser doubles as Tess’s source of tough love and someone who only judges her a little bit for certain decisions she makes instead of someone who judges her a lotta bit like most of the other characters would.

Even characters that seem too interesting to exist outside of a novel evolve in a way that render them painfully human. For instance, the enigmatic Simone is initially cripplingly intimidating. Through Tess’s eyes (and the readers’), she’s been everywhere, done everything, knows everything, and is also probably privy to some kind of otherworldly knowledge, especially when it comes to wine. As she takes Tess under her wing and begins blurring the lines between professional mentor and personal teacher, we are introduced to certain aspects of Simone that begin to break through her untouchable veneer.

Not surprisingly, Tess’s relationship with Jake is nothing short of addicting to read about. Every interaction, positive or negative, large or small, leaves you wanting more. More interactions, more intimacy, more insight into Jake’s “too cool for school” act. I spent a lot of the novel thinking he was closer to Tess’s age then he really is, but that just made me feel even more connected to Tess’s experience. Oftentimes we either don’t know someone’s age at all, or there seem to be multiple different sources each saying something different. In a novel like this where all we have to go on is the present, details of the past like when someone was born just don’t seem very significant.

**[In doing some Google searching for this post, I discovered that a tv series adaptation for this book has been set to premiere on Starz, May 6th of this year. I wasn’t able to find too much info, but I’ll include the IMDB page link here for cast and crew info.]**

sweetbitter window
It just looks so dang good

To wrap up a post I definitely should edit but cannot bear to cut anything out of, Sweetbitter is one of those books that I know I’ll be rereading in the near future. Stephanie Danler uses language that makes the mundane feel laced with meaning, without using cliches or forced metaphors. She captures the feeling of not knowing where you’re going or what you’re doing, but godd*mn at least you’re alive and doing IT, what ever “it” is. It’s one of those books that feels so immediate – I became so engrossed with what will happen next and with whom that as soon as I would put the book down, I’d long to be back in Tess’s world. I missed the restaurant and the microcosm it comes to represent as if it was a part of it myself.

This is a book that will pull anyone in, but I especially recommend it to those of us just starting out, making mistakes, probably doing things we shouldn’t be doing, but just trying to live our lives the best way we know how. The title captures it all: if you want the sweet, you have to deal with the bitter and you don’t always get to choose the order in which you get either. All you can do is take it for what it is, and trust that the blending of the good and bad will come together to make something that you might not want in the moment, but will probably need in the long run.

As always, thanks for reading! // I’m slowly but surely getting back to my “post every Thursday” schedule, maybe hopefully we shall see.


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