BOOK REVIEW: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

I’d like to start this off by giving a little shout out to one of my favourite book bloggers. Her name is Megan Prokott (also known as “The Spines”) and her website is www.meganprokott.com. She writes awesome posts about books and her Instagram page the_spines is lovely. I found out about this book through her, and I recommend giving her stuff a read!

Now, on to the review.

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When 22-year-old Tess arrives in New York City with nothing but her car, one bedroom in a tiny rental apartment, and her meager belongings, she is desperate to find a job. Almost immediately she lands a position at a prestigious restaurant in the city, and begins to train in the stifling, overwhelming atmosphere of the culinary world. As she settles is and gets to know her co-workers, she falls victim to the hard-partying lifestyle of full-time restaurant workers.

As she starts to explore the new city and leave behind her small-town persona, Tess becomes enmeshed in a complex relationship with two of her co-workers – one of them, Jake, an attractive man a few years her senior, and the other, Simone, a significantly older woman and the restaurant’s star wine expert. Inexperienced, young, and naïve, Tess tries to present herself as a mature, scholarly young woman capable of handling any situation.

Sweetbitter reads as both an expose on the culinary world, in which the author worked when she moved to New York City, and as an explanation of how difficult it is to navigate the world as a young woman. Tess desperately wants to impress her co-workers and her superiors, Simone in particular, and attaches to the older woman in a complicated way. Over the course of a year, Tess loses herself to a culture of drinking, drugs, and partying, and her waking moments are spent almost exclusively working and trying to bond with Jake and Simone.

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Stephanie Danler’s writing is quite fluid, shapeshifting from traditional paragraph structure to long, almost poetic lists of things overheard in the restaurant. The book feels like a long train of thought pulled straight from Tess’s mind, prominently featuring her short attention span and knack for missing important details of situations. When Tess is intoxicated (and she often is) the story’s narrative becomes just as blurry and dazed as its’ main character, and when Tess is on her game, the book reads like a sharp, witty criticism of contemporary culture. It morphs with Tess as she becomes more and more of a New York City girl.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sweetbitter. Although at times I found Tess unbearable and frustrating, I saw parts of myself – the parts I often don’t like – in her as well. The overwhelming desire to be wanted and needed, the ability to blind myself to negative things people in my life are doing, and the fear of never really mattering to the world. Danler has quite beautifully captured what it means to be young and insecure, and she offers a starting depiction of what it’s like for a young woman to know she’s beautiful and to use it to her advantage, albeit at the cost of her intellect.

Sweetbitter is a book that will appeal to anyone who likes a good New York City story. I wouldn’t call it romantic, but rather realistic. It’s deeper than just a chick-flick kind of read, but will also appeal to anyone who is looking for something a bit softer and simpler to dive into over the holidays.