Margin Notes: Sweetbitter


by Stephanie Danler

A lush, raw, thrilling novel of the senses about a year in the life of a uniquely beguiling young woman, set in the wild, alluring world of a famous downtown New York restaurant.

"Let's say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge..." 

This is how we meet unforgettable Tess, the twenty-two-year-old at the heart of this stunning first novel. Shot from a mundane, provincial past, she's come to New York to look for a life she can't define, except as a burning drive to become someone, to belong somewhere. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a "backwaiter," on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she's pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan's ardor. 

These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess's hardest lesson of all. Sweetbitter is a story of discovery, enchantment, and the power of what remains after disillusionment.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was cynical, readable, and totally fine. It wasn't a difficult read, but it wasn't one I was dying to get back to as it sat on my bedside table. As 2 stars say, it was ok.

Like so many female-centric plots of late this narrator is unlikable. She wasn't as extremely unlikable as some other narrators, but still, immature, kind of annoying, self-centered, and a little cring-y.

The plot of this book is steeped in cliche--we have a pretty girl who up and leaves her small-town-life with barely a note for her family and no plan--just the pull of NYC. She finds a large but dingy apartment in Williamsburg that just so happens to be trendy. She snags a job at one of the best restaurants in town. She meets a cast of smart, kooky, She thinks NYC was cooler before she got there. She falls for a handsome, older, world-weary bartender. She does drugs and drinks and blacks out and stays up all night. and learns about herself, and ends up in an awkward entanglement that pops the NYC bubble for her.

At the beginning, I swept that stuff to the side because some of the language was really nice--particularly as she's learning about wine and oysters and gourmet food. It's lush, beautifully descriptive, and fun. I was ok with her trite backstory because it didn't seem that important to who she was in the book. I was interested in the dynamics of this restaurant and the people who worked there. It was interesting. We got a peek into the restaurant, it's culture, and the people who make it run.

Somewhere along the way, though, I started feeling apathetic about our narrator. Then it turned into full fledged ughhhhh.

Maybe it was when every single restaurant employee told her not to fall for the bartender. Maybe it was when she started idolizing her weirdo waitress friend to SWF levels. Maybe it was when she was dismissive and rude to the waiter who took her out to dinner. Maybe it was when she started referring to pills as treats. Maybe it was when she was so dismissive of the only woman server who treated her like a friend. Maybe it was when the language started to feel less lush and more overt and melodramatic.

It was probably that since I went through a post-collegiate period of time in NYC I sort of got it at first and was willing to run down a nostalgic rabbit hole, but... I could also could critique the plot and the feeling you get from being in NYC pretty easily. NYC stopped feeling like NYC to me and started to feel like a caricature or a different city in general. Sex in the back seat of a cab? Nope. Going to only one bar ever? Nope. Must-have perfect leather jackets that show up in the first non-smelly vintage shop you stop at? Hahahahaha.

Then our narrator's personality traits started grating on me. She is unabashedly self-centered. She constantly lets herself off the hook. She's better than everyone else. She tries harder, knows more, is prettier, at a different level... yeah suuuuure lady. She forgives herself for bad judgement too easily.

You actually end up rooting for her to flame out because NYC would be better without her.

The ending was weird--it felt distinct from the world of the restaurant we were pulled into. One little twitch in the perfect service and everything went down the tubes--she immediately gives into her worst tendencies and assumes the worst, gets totally obliterated, becomes vindictive acts stupidly, and... flames out.

Not my fav.

View all my reviews


Popular Posts