Fast paced, dramatic, hard, and true. Those are the words that I would use to describe Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. If you were to mix Beat poetry with Crank and a dash of Gossip Girl, this book would be the byproduct.
This coming-of-age novel gripped me and I read it within three days. The novel chronicles the life of Tess, a millennial who landed a job at a prestigious restaurant in NYC after running away from home, all by batting her eyes. The restaurant, which is based on the Union Square Cafe, is filled with secret dramas which the unfortunate heroin stumbles upon and eventually becomes a part of.
Tess falls in love with the bartender, Jake, who has an odd relationship with the senior server, Simone. Tess tries to develop a taste for wine and learns about the trade through Simone, all the while becoming closer to Jake. After hours, the staff at the restaurant go to Park Bar, a dive bar, where they drink and snort cocaine into oblivion. Addiction settles, in more ways than one, and Tess is free falling down in a harsh and cruel rabbit hole that she eventually has to crawl out of.
The book itself is split up into the four seasons and sweet is turned into bitter. Poem-styled recollections of lines dropped in conversations between staff members are scattered throughout the book: “It’s true, Chef called him a faggot.” “If one more bitch cuts me off to ask for Chardonnay–.” “And after I took the LSAT, I was like, wait, I don’t want to be a lawyer.” “But it smells like garbage and Fernet in there.”
Working in the “serving” industry, per se, I believe this book is spot on. Servers in restaurants are no longer lesser-than those they serve, but on the same level, more or less. They are those going to college, in college, or just graduated. They know where the food is coming from, they have a system all of their own working behind-the-scenes, and have developed a palate all on their own. They know what they want in life and still have the gumption and eagerness to get it. Once a job performed by “degenerates” is now a highly coveted job performed by young white women paving a career path for themselves.
But there is one thing the so-called “degenerates” and white youth have in common: we still drink and party too hard for our own good. “When I woke up again it was to a sunset I didn’t deserve,” the narrator said. “I moved my neck first, craned it, looking down. My jeans were on. My Converse were off, but my ankle socks were on, evidence of an outside presence. I didn’t remember getting to my bed or to my apartment. I sat up a bit more…There was a note safety-pinned to my shirt: ‘Please text me so I know you’re alive, Your Roommate, Jesse.’”
The plot of a coked-out girl falling too hard for a guy that is no good for her may sound like it would become boring at parts, but the fact of the matter is, Danler writes so well and so truthfully, that the basic plot line can be excused. Her writing doesn’t miss a beatt and can be described as sensory overload. After the first chapter, I believed this work was Beat poetry in novel format. The sentences are brief, but powerful, with a few descriptive lists that make your mind wander. For example: “BITTER: always a bit unanticipated. Coffee, chocolate, rosemary, citrus rinds, wine. Once, when we were wild, it told us about poison. The mouth still hesitates at each new encounter. We urge it forward, say, Adapt. Now, enjoy it.”
Although Tess can be a Bella Swan of a character at points, nevertheless, I rooted for her, even in her desperate attempt to win the affections of the bad-boy bartender. I suppose I knew it would end badly for her, but I rooted for her all the same.
Before signing off, I have to mention that Sweetbitter is becoming a Starz show, backed by Brad Pitt. The cast has already been selected and it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing previews for it. I do not have a Starz account but I think I might cave and purchase one just to watch this series. Perhaps when the show finally does come out I’ll do a review on that. Let me know what you think in the comments below and if you want more book reviews, please subscribe to my blog!