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What Book Reviewers Got Wrong about the Novel Sweetbitter

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Sweetbitter will be in your beach bag, and you'll see its rosé-pink cover peeking out of purses on the train and at airports, too. In bookstores, it'll be prominently on display—one of those front-and-center spots, and your friends, maybe even your mother, will ask you if you've read it.

But consume it too quickly—without pausing to think—and you might not taste it at all. The danger is in labeling the book as the Times did in a recent review: as an “aspirational” novel of a “sentimental education"—of swallowing the novel without chewing it, of being distracted by the food and the city and the elaborate metaphors without reflecting on what makes the book truly jarring—and more than just a throwaway beach read.


Sweetbitter has been on the radar since well before its May 24th publication: An October 2014 Times story on new writers with big book deals reported that the novel, Stephanie Danler's first, had been acquired by publisher Alfred A. Knopf in a high-six-figure, two-book contract. Add that reputation—a success story not only for protagonist but for novelist herself (Danler worked at the Union Square Cafe, Buvette, and Tía Pol)—to its splashy summary (exposé from within the trenches, "the Kitchen Confidential of our time"), and it's got all of the summertime bestseller bells and whistles.

Readers will seize, as we always do, on the opportunity to be voyeurs—and now, more than ever before, into the nitty-gritty of restaurants. Where The Devil Wears Prada offered a glimpse into the world of fashion magazines, and The Nanny Diaries into the world of wealthy Upper East Side families, here, we're spying on servers, bartenders, and backwaiters at an identifiable New York City restaurant through the lens of a very young, very directionless narrator who comes to the city for something else ( ...though she does not know what exactly). It's a fast-moving plot of gritty glamor and growing up (yes, there's sex and lots of drugs, too), set in the recesses of a restaurant, and it's being published at a time when Americans are spending more on eating out than on groceries for the first time ever—a time when more of us care more deeply about the secret life of restaurants.

So like I said, this book will be a hit. And while other publications have predicted the same, the story's also a little more complicated than that.

Uova Sode with Seasoned Salt
Uova Sode with Seasoned Salt

So far, many of the descriptions of Sweetbitter in the press have been, to put it nicely, simplistic (and to put it accurately, inaccurate).

Refinery29 calls it an "irresistibly dark and deeply sexy [...] luscious treat for the senses" that "traces a fall from innocence to the development of true identity"; Vanity Fair says it's "a love letter to the restaurant that gave Danler her first job and an unflinching story of a 22-year-old girl finding herself in New York City"; and the Times' review by Dwight Garner earlier this month declared the novel "the story of [the narrator] Tess’s sentimental education," explaining that "in Manhattan we watch her—she is vulnerable but rarely weak—pour herself full with books and art and music, and blossom like a daisy. Mostly she fills herself with lovely things to eat and drink."

On heirloom tomatoes: "Once all of our tomatoes were like that. […] Now everything tastes like nothing."
On heirloom tomatoes: "Once all of our tomatoes were like that. […] Now everything tastes like nothing." Photo by Mark Weinberg

But considering that Danler told told The Paris Review that when she was starting the novel "Tess was really blank. Even blanker than she is now," we can assume that this is not the tale of identity development, as Refinery29 put it, or of a blossoming daisy, as the Times strangely did. Tess is blank, implies Danler, even when the book is finished.

And while Garner of the Times emphasized that none of the characters feel like stereotypes, Danler told Refinery29 that Jake, the bartender Tess falls for, "is the stereotype of every bartender in New York City right now." Tess herself uses simple qualifiers to remember the restaurant's other employees: "Debutante-Smile, Guy-with-Clark-Kent-Glasses, Guy-with-Long-Hair-and-Bun, Overweight-Gray-Hair-Guy. [...] There was Mean-Girl, and Russian-Pouty-Lips." The stereotypes are omnipresent, from the brooding poet-type bartender to the worldly older woman with the still-pulsing sexual allure to the predatory supervisor to the "textbook insane anorexic." What's more stereotypical than "textbook"?

Maybe the marketing angle (that some reviewers have bought into) is that this is story of great learning, of establishing identity, of defying stereotypes, and of bringing attention to a part of the industry that we restaurant-goers largely ignore. And while many articles about Sweetbitter do acknowledge that it "grows darker" than expected, it's a reference to Danler's refusal to gloss over the less savory parts of New York City and restaurant service (the hangovers, the abusive relationships, the long hours).

But more than the drugs Tess does in the bathroom (or their aftermath), what really makes Sweetbitter hard to stomach (and what makes it thought-provoking: I read it more than a month ago, over a period of three days, and am still digesting) is that it refuses to be any of the stories these reviews would have you believe.

On September: "Out in the Greenmarket people circled patiently, holding cartons of prune plums, ears of the last silken corn, long, thin-skinned lavender eggplants."
On September: "Out in the Greenmarket people circled patiently, holding cartons of prune plums, ears of the last silken corn, long, thin-skinned lavender eggplants." Photo by James Ransom

Because the true despair and restlessness of the book comes from its portrait of a lost, flailing young person who elicits more frustration than sympathy. Call Tess the prototypical "millennial": She's someone who feels entitled to an amorphous "everything" ("You can't have all those things?" she wonders, referring to: Southeast Asian sojourns, shopping at J. Crew, discourses on anarchy) but does not want to work for or define it ("I don’t have to compromise yet. I don’t have to do a single thing I don’t want to do. That’s why you hate me," she tells Jake). She begs to be listened to but doesn't have much to say ("If I am qualified to give advice on anything, it is probably a hangover") or how to say it (“I don’t think I said it well before" and "I didn't remember the right things, let me try again"). She comes to New York because she's bored with everything, but she may be bored with everything because she likes everything ("I like books. And everything else").

But at the same time she makes that claim, it's the words "I. Don't. Care." that have been her "mantra all [her] life"; and when she finally does start to care, she's not sure about what—or to what end ("Had I given any thought to the future? Sure. I wanted next year to look like the life I was leading right now"). Her only goals are only immediate, and other possibilities for the future are left unaddressed.

On figs: "I tore them apart. They were soft, the pink interior lazily revealing itself."
On figs: "I tore them apart. They were soft, the pink interior lazily revealing itself." Photo by James Ransom

Maybe Tess is nearsighted because she can't figure out how much choice she has in shaping her life in the first place—and despite what so many reviews have said, it's not a lesson she learns at the book's end.

On one hand, Tess's lack of identity (we learn almost nothing of her background, and we barely hear her name; in one instance where her name is uttered, she barely recognizes it herself: "Everyone stared at me. It dripped into my head, from some neglected fault, thickly, painfully, that I was Tess”) is freeing. In her interview at the restaurant, she spouts off, in a hard-to-believe moment of clear articulation, that "forgetting ourselves [is] the big grown-up secret to survival."

But by the end of the book, after a year of letting her work and her colleagues define her identity (more than halfway into her year, she describes "who I was now" as "the girl who got to fix Jake’s hair"), she realizes that remaking her life daily is "the same thing as being constantly undone." Just six pages later, however, she's changed her mind again: The secret that she and the other servers know is that life is "wiped as clean as the board at the end of the night and if we kept our spirits up, it meant we were inexhaustible.”

So which is it, Tess? Is living identity-free liberating, or is it destructive? What has she learned by the end of all of this? What have we?

On oysters: "Briny means salty. It means made by the ocean, it means breathing seawater. Metallic, mushy, kelp."
On oysters: "Briny means salty. It means made by the ocean, it means breathing seawater. Metallic, mushy, kelp." Photo by Linda Pugliese

So call her an aimless 20-something, a product of her generation, or simply call Tess's poor decision-making and lack of direction maddening, upsetting, and if you're a young person in the food world (or, you know, just a young person trying to figure things out in general) close to home. That's what makes Sweetbitter challenging. That's what keeps it from being a one-and-done vacation read. That's what makes it more than the vignettes of heirloom tomatoes or truffle season or sexual tension in the wine cellar. Though that will surely be what draws the readers in.

Tess is attracted to Jake, the bartender, partly because there is "a submissiveness to his beauty." And it's easy for the beauty of Sweetbitter to be submissive, too. Its subject matter and its character lend itself to the cheap thrills of marketing; it's snackable, craveworthy—a bag of popcorn. But while readers might be initially attracted to the lengthy descriptions of wines and the juicy behind-the-scenes drama (and confusing love triangle), we should refuse this easy romance: The book's beauty is sharper (and scarier) than that.

One bite of Sweetbitter and you'll devour it. Gabrielle Hamilton, author of Blood, Bones & Butter, said that it "was so engrossing to read, [she] missed a flight even though [she] had already checked in and was waiting at the gate."

But it deserves more than a quick gulp—and if you take it in too fast, it might leave a bad taste in your mouth.

What will you be reading this Memorial Day weekend (and into the summer)? Tell us what you're excited about in the comments below!

Tags: book review, sweetbitter, fiction, fiction review, stephanie danler