By Allyson Vaughan
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is perhaps one of the most narrative rich novels to come out this summer. The novel tells the story of Tess, a 22-year-old from “somewhere” who runs to New York, fresh with an English degree and the yearning only possible in a hungry, green young woman eager to find herself out of her comfort zone. And out of her comfort zone she is in one of New York’s most notorious restaurants. There Tess is amidst the chaos that teaches, the kind of chaos only possible working in a city built on it, in an industry that thrives on the chaotic order of service.
Tess is intrigued by a pair who also work at the restaurant, Jake and Simone. Simone, 37, an iron made, intelligent, and fastidious woman. And Jake, 30, the damaged, beautiful icon every 22-year-old is drawn to for their enigmatic brazenness. Without spoiling anything, Jake and Simone share history, are almost impenetrably close. However, their relationship will surprise the reader’s expectations, and Tess’s involvement with them motivate a great deal of the plot. An important note about Jake and Simone is that they are not caricatures, their dysfunctional nature is rendered organic and believable. Danler doesn’t force the idea of a stoney, hardened by circumstance woman nor the damaged, brooding hipster in a leather jacket trope. Part of the pull of the novel is to let her characters simply be, a naturalness that is only achievable through careful, thoughtful writing. As Tess is pulled into their field of magnetism, so is the reader.And as Simone teaches Tess about wine, the reader is taught to have a palette for Danler’s characters. Mimicking the properties of wine, Danler’s characters have their own terroir (the aspect of wine where environmental factors affect the grape crop’s epigenetic profile). The sharp, dangerous tongues and habits—cruelty, sex, drugs, drinking, detachment—of those around her cultivate a bitterness in the sensitive, impressionable Tess. A bitterness that is not so apocalyptic, but rather a maturity she reaches by the end of the novel.
Danler’s characters are complex, the form and style well-bodied (how many wine puns can I fit in here?) and border on daring, but settle at bold. It’s a novel that captivates the taste of what it’s like to be 22, enjoyably lost, dysfunctional at best, and tasked with catering to the needs of others. All within the context of New York, the best-worst place in the world to reinvent yourself and get re-acquainted with the people you used to be. At one point in the novel, Tess is warned that now that she’s become a part of this family, a part of the margins of the society, her old friends will never be her friends again. Tess is from a privilege background, educated, and goal oriented. So for her to choose to sign up for grunt work, to serve when by all expectations she should be served, is a testament to the strong will the other characters doubt in her. The loss of control she feels stems from making her own choices, from choosing the not so walked long-way around. And Danler puts those ideas down in language that surprises the palette of her readers, but though unfamiliar warms the reader to its offerings.
I want to refrain from using too many food associated words, but this novel is just exquisite in its richness and its depiction of how humans can feel like the equivalent of burnt toast and yet still exist in, loving, a city that would love to crush them. Though we all know New York is a character in reality and in whatever novel it’s featured in, it never overshadows Danler’s narrative. She reaches a balance of letting her characters derive from the setting, and the setting influencing them in return. Savor Danler’s work. Let each word, paragraph, chapter build in your mind as you read. Treat reading this novel like the last best meal you’ll ever have, if only to appreciate the work Danler has put into making a novel that breathes, effortless, and bubbles from depth to surface.