“You will develop a palate. A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.”
These are the words that introduce us to Tess, the twenty-two year old narrator of Sweetbitter.
Shot from a mundane, provincial past, Tess comes to New York in the stifling summer of 2006. Alone, knowing no one, living in a rented room in Williamsburg, she manages to land a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant.
This begins the year we spend with Tess as she navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing, and privileged life she has chosen,as well as the remorseless and luminous city around her. What follows is her education: in oysters, Champagne, the appellations of Burgundy, friendship, cocaine, lust, love, and dive bars.
As her appetites awaken- for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, and belonging – we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle. With an orphan’s ardor she latches onto Simone, a senior server at the restaurant who has lived in ways Tess only dreams of, and the against warnings of coworkers she falls under the spell of Jake, the elusive, tatted up, achingly beautiful bartender.
These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s most exhilarating and painful lesson of all.
Synopsis from hardcover book, 352 pages, copyright 2016 and published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Here’s a video of author Stephanie Danler talking about Sweetbitter including a reading of the book.
1. How did you feel about Tess in the beginning of the novel and then again at the conclusion?
2. Did you think Tess accomplished her goals she set out to do in the beginning of her move to NYC, and how do you think she looked at her future at the end of the book?
3. How do you think Tess’s relationship with Mrs. Neely affected her life?
4. Do you think Tess’s vision of freedom reflected her feeling of freedom in the beginning of the book?
5. Do you think Tess grew into a woman at the end of the book?
6. Do you think the broken wine glass on the cover of the book reflects Tess’s broken expectations throughout the story? What does the title and the broken glass suggest?
7. Did you find the graphic language in this book to be offensive?
8. Did this book meet your expectations in regard to detailing what the restaurant business really entails?
9. Taste, not only in the body’s ability to detect sweet, salty, sour and bitter but in culture is important in Tess’s coming of age. Why do you think it came easy to Tess to learn the taste of food and drink, and also life compared to Jake and Simone?
10. Discuss Tess and Jake’s relationship, Simone and Jake’s and that of Tess and Simone’s relationship. Which relationship is more complex and how do they differ?
11. The setting of the book is in New York City, how accurately do feel this is portrayed? What does city life teach Tess as she is maturing into adulthood?
12. How do you feel about the authors style in writing, using sensual language to create the NYC experience?
13. Do you think the author’s use of dialogue driven rather than plot driven help engage the reader? How successful was the author in achieving this?
14. Which part of the novel made the most impact on you?
15. Did you enjoy this coming of age novel? Who would you recommend this book to?
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