This week I read Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. It follows 22-year-old Tess, who moves to New York City in the summer of 2006. She walks into a random restaurant, the best one in the city, and lands the job. She quickly becomes consumed with the lives of the other servers, joining their active night life. But two coworkers, Simone and Jake, have her utmost attention. Jake is the bad boy that Tess can’t have. Simone is the older, wiser waiter who takes Tess under her wing. What follows is the awakening of Tess’s palate, her coming of age, and her realization of what she deserves from the world. She does this through drinking, partying, and falling in love. Her good decisions may be few and far between, but her bad decisions cause her to grow as a person.
This quickly became one of my favorite books of all time. I read this over a period of three days at my local Barnes & Noble, and when I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For someone who has worked in food service for years, I thought that Danler really nailed what it’s like to work in a restaurant, even if I’ve never worked in one as fancy as the one Tess lands in. This book made me want to drop everything and take a road trip, to have new experiences and summon my own coming-of-age. I found Tess to be an incredibly real character – she messes up, is unlikable at times, but in the end tries to better her self. One thing she seemed to struggle with was self-respect, almost until the very end of the book, when what I found to be her worst mistake was made. But through it all, you can’t help but root for her, want her to discover that she deserves more than she’s allowing herself to have.
Sweetbitter doesn’t have some mystery, something sinister going on in the background, or even a real plot. What it does is simply follow Tess’s life, and it was still interesting! I think what we all want is for our lives to be interesting enough for someone to want to read about it, to have someone root for us as we go through our life’s adventures, even if we don’t know they’re adventures while we’re having them. And it was refreshing to have a female character who was allowed to make mistakes and be unlikable, while still allowing us to want her to come out on top.
Stephanie Danler crafted a novel with gorgeous prose, incredible sensory detail, and a beautiful aesthetic that’s hard to top. I think it will be a while before I find a book that resonates with me as much as this one did.