Book Review: ‘Sweetbitter’ by Stephanie Danler

Sweetbitter Summary 

In this coming-of-age novel, Danler chooses to focus on nothing but self-awareness. As a young woman in her twenties, Tess, who says, “I came here in a car like everybody else”, is all the more prepared to find her identity in the busy city of New York. At first, it seems an unlikely venture especially for one who has taken up a jo as a waitress assuming the position of standby for those that work in high net worth industries. However, Danler places Tess against a grimy atmosphere of New York’s gold-plated restaurants. For Tess, she is not prepared for what life will throw at her as she, innocently, begins her journey of self-discovery. 

Having newly arrived in New York, Tess acquires herself a position as a “backwaiter” at one of Manhattan’s downtown restaurants. There is no expectation of what would occur as Tess maneuvers through experience after experience as she interacts with the city’s highly respected company representatives. However, a cliché is that similar to other coming-of-age twenty-somethings, Tess wears a kind of blank hope that all will be merry in New York. At first, it seems innocent, but as the story progresses, Danler shows the dominance of naivety and lack of preparedness to tackle life which is, to say the least, a cocktail of bittersweet experiences. 

For Tess, and her newness in New York, she becomes like a child who is all but willing to expose herself to new experiences. However, just like kids like to explore and to believe that they have magical powers, they also have to battle and accept the reality of not being alone. In the same manner, Danler presents Tess as one who is romantically betrothed to her journey of self-discovery that, for some moment, she forgets that she is not living in a vacuum. But the beauty of life, as Danler projects it through Tess’ eyes, is that it throws in a few grapes and lemons to as the ultimate test for a “backwaiter” from Ohio to find her footing in a new environment. 

It is interesting that at first, Jake a bartender, and Simone, a senior server, do not like Tess. However, as she settles in, the two become warm towards her; Simone actually starts to train Tess’ palate with the ambition that she might, one day, become a server. For a person with no ambition, but only focused on the journey of self-discovery, Tess finally finds herself worrying about more than just her initial motive. The story culminates with Tess giving into a general manager’s, Howard, sexual advances after she requests to be placed as a server. As she seeks the prestige that comes along with the job, Tess understand that Simone might block her promotion. In finality, Tess makes the resolve to work at a wine shop. 

Plot Analysis 

The initial impact of the novel is that it presents what could be an interesting and engaging story about self-exploration. Danler actually uses her own life experiences as the motivation to write the novel. Shifting to Tess, she appears somewhat self-involvement which could be Danler’s way of satirizing her sense of importance toward self – a common symptom in young people. As a coming-of-age woman in early twenties, Tess is, just like what one would expect, ambitiously looking to upgrade her life across almost all dimensions. At first, she appears to be staunchly focused on a journey of self-exploration. However, her experiences in one of Manhattan’s most elite restaurants changes everything. 

In the book, Danler says, “You will develop a palate. A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again”. With these few lines, Danler presents the life that Tess would soon acquire were she to earn a promotion as a server. However, Tess is unsuspecting that she is about to be educated in love, lust, champagne, cocaine, and exquisite dining rooms, as she navigates the punishing life she has unwillingly chosen. The chaotic and enchanting nature of being a worker at an elite restaurant turns dim as Tess struggles to realize her ambitions. 

As the story progress, it is not clear what her ambitions are prior to her arrival to New York. If indeed they have changed, Tess might not be aware of such changes. In fact, she is unknowingly drawn into a life that is unforgiving; one that could have a long-lasting impact on her perception of self. Her experience with Howard at the end of the story is one of the situations where young and ambitious women succumb to those in power positions. Danler sues Howard’s manipulation to project the stark reality of being young, and fragile in a city like New York. In a city driven by luxury, and as everyone wants to interact with those who adorn ceremonial jobs characterized by fat cheques and a gold-plated life, Tess is at loggerheads with what she expects against what she really experiences. 

Danler’s characterization of Jake and Simone rivals that of other stories which place the man as the object of admiration. Quite implicitly, Danler shifts focus to Simone who takes the trophy home as being the true object of love. With relationships between women taking over in American literature, Danler is sleek in her projection of Simone’s composure and intellect against Jake’s flat psyche. A comparison of the two characters shows that for Tess, she stands on a thin line between becoming Simone’s protégé, or Jake’s lover. The latter option, to the reader’s perspective, seems quite obvious and lacks any intrigue. One would anticipate Tess to thrive under Simone compared to when she is with Jake. Simone and Jake are part of the sweetbitter experience that Tess has to go through in her journey of self-discovery. 

Final Comment

The novel is a good read for those that have interest in coming-of-age stories. The twist in Danler’s story is that for Tess, she is unsuspecting, naïve, but keen to make a name for herself. Unfortunately, she faces inherent obstacles that prove to be a setback against her pursuit of a promotion. Her experiences are common to young women who find themselves plunged into the high-adrenaline world of the hospitality industry which presents much promise as it does destruction. The double-sided effect of the life that Tess chooses makes the novel project a sense of reality. 

However, for a reader expecting a story that is not centered on the self-involved nature of coming-of-age men and women, one might perceive the novel as being a compilation of experiences that are all too common. On that account, Danler’s attempt to tell the story from the angle of the unsuspecting protagonist might be reduced to a story that echoes only that which is already known. Notwithstanding, Danler does a good job humanizing Tess’ experiences showing that the beauty of life is embedded in the bittersweet experiences that come to define one’s perspective. 

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