Book Talk: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler



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Sweetbitter is a book that I've been hearing about all over the place. Primarily on All the Books podcast but once I heard it mentioned there I started seeing it everywhere and I've yet to read a bad word. I finally grabbed a copy at the London Review Bookshop the other week and read it pretty much immediately. I'm on a really good roll recently with reading brilliant books....

"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.

I don't remember the last time I read a book quite like Sweetbitter. On the face of it it's a fairly standard coming of age love story, but in reality it's that and much more. The first thing that really struck me about it was that had it not been on the blurb I would have been completely unaware of Tess's name until at least three quarters of the way through the book. I don't know why this had such an affect on me as I can happily read books with unnamed narrators no problem, and it didn't create a problem for me as such, I was just aware that nobody had called her by name for most of the book, but I feel like that was probably deliberate. It helps contribute to the sense that until a pretty late stage in the book none of the characters really know each other, and I got the feeling that her coworkers at the restaurant had a much bigger effect on Tess's life than she did on theirs.

The descriptions of working in a restaurant were really vivid. It's something I find really intriguing despite never having done it, and restaurant life was really well drawn throughout the novel. I've worked in jobs where the weird hours make you distant from the world and that feeling of disconnect ran through Sweetbitter and permeated throughout the whole of the plot and particularly through the disjointed and dysfunctional relationships in the story.

It is one of those novels where nothing really happens but at the same time a lot happened. The events are small and cumulative with great attention to detail. The writing is immersive and intriguing and I'll definitely be looking out for more from Stephanie Danler.


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