Sweetbitter Book Review

Sweetbitter: Book Review by Arlene.

3.5 stars out of 5 for Sweetbitter


The broken wine glass on the book jacket cover is the perfect silent opening line of my review.

If you are a lover of good food and wine you might be drawn to read this debut novel by Stephanie Danler.

If you choose to read this book after viewing our intro comments, keep in mind the story line is entirely based through the eyes of Tess, the 22 year old young woman searching for answers to her own life when she leaves her mid west town alone for the mystique and inviting intrigue of New York City in downtown Manhattan.

Let me say at the start of the review that I anticipated enjoying this novel.

That being said, in my opinion, it was raw, original, blunt and graphic and the characters throughout the story each had their own stories come to light as you continue reading.

The language was strong so keep in mind the protagonist is a young 22 easily impressed girl not yet a woman.

I enjoyed reading the book although at times I found myself saying “Oh when is this girl really going to see the light!!” She finally does in the end and reading her journey may well keep you reading.

The novel takes you through the 4 seasons of one year in the life of Tess, beginning in the early summer of June 2006. She leaves her hometown in her car and crosses the George Washington Bridge into NYC which is her first New York experience.

Thus begins her adventure. This novel was described in “Marie Claire” as a “raw, shucked, pungent wild love story and it is all that.”

Tess lives in a rented room in Williamsburg and came to the City knowing no one.
Sweetbitter Book Review

One highlight that stands out for me at the point in one day after she arrived in NYC she went to Chinatown alone for lunch and thought how quiet it is today as she walked along the Williamsburg Bridge – it always moved her as she contemplated the skyline a double feeling of “it’s ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave.”

Tess interviews for a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant and is hired on the spot.

You will be taken into the workings of the inner hierarchy of the restaurant business from the owner, general manager, chef, bartender, wait staff to the lowest level of the “backwaiter” and all in between.

Tess’s education about food and drink will also educate the reader along the way. Secrets will be revealed and shared like a ceremony marking kinship as stated on page 89 as the Autumn season begins.

Here is where the relationships begin to present themselves and keep you turning the pages if you are still reading the book at this point.

Simone, a senior server and Jake, the bartender have pivotal roles in Tess’s new life in the restaurant and in her personal life as well. Drugs and alcohol run rampant through the pages.

An interesting tidbit of information in the novel is the education given to Tess by Simone in regard to one of the regular customers.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Every table has a number and every seat has a number and the “regular guests” who come in always sit at their table and in their seat.

The servers are most likely always the same so they know even before reaching a particular table what those guests will order to drink etc etc etc.

One episode I found really unique and I will reveal it here was when Simone was educating Tess on a particular couple, she told Tess to bring an extra napkin along as the two of them approached a table and Tess had no idea why.

When they approached the table the wife put the napkin on the table on her lap and took the extra napkin from Simone while she was reciting the specials of the day without hesitation.

I guess you could call that scenario a game that was automatically played each time this particular couple came in. I guess you are wondering why this would happen every time.

I will let the cat out of the bag this one time. The wife never ate the food she ordered. She would somehow put all her food into both napkins, go to the ladies room at the end of the meal and throw all the food and the napkins away in the trash.

Tess asked Simone why. “Why come here and why spend all that money?”

The answer Simone gave to Tess was “Everyone is here because everyone else is here. It’s the cost of doing business. You become a purveyor of their secrets and you carry them with you.”

The Park Bar plays a big role in the story.

It is the hangout bar the employees go to when the restaurant closes and they would assemble there often. The night before Thanksgiving is no exception and it is called “Party Night”. This night becomes a turning point for Tess…She does party and she is still being called “The New Girl”.

All this time since beginning working at the restaurant she has developed a big crush on the bartender Jake. This crush consumes her day and night. They do eventually come together in a relationship. Where the relationship ends up is a very detailed and intricate part of the novel.

You will travel along with Tess through Christmas and New Years, her relationship with Jake, her relationship with Jake and Simone (there is a real connection between Jake and Simone) you will be drawn into that too. These complex personalities were absorbing.

Towards the end of Winter, Howard the general manager offers Tess a position to become a “server.” She accepts.

Spring arrives and brings more complications and surprises to Tess’s life and I felt exasperated for her.

I feel the writing of Danler’s debut novel was very good. I became absorbed by the story line and the characters and situations that developed.

I like the way Stephanie Danler structured the 4 seasons coming into play to the story line.

There were a lot of situations going on with the restaurant itself. The Board of Health Inspection. The restaurant closes at one point. The Wine Cellar plays a significant role in different situations that Tess gets involved in at the restaurant. They all come into play and affect Tess’s life.

I would recommend reading this book if this review beckons you to do so.

Sweetbitter is available here. Or check out the audio book, free with an Audible trial.

Check out Sweetbitter discussion questions!

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14 thoughts on “Sweetbitter Book Review

    1. Hi Becky Sweetbitter is a good choice for a fun summer book to read. It moves along at a good pace and the storyline, although a bit rough at times, should keep you reading and hopefully relaxing on a summer day. Thanks for your comments!

  1. My little sister’s name is Simone! It’s always interesting when you come across a character who has the name of yourself or someone in your immediate family. It sounds like this one really is about a characters journey, and that in the end she does see the light and achieve what she needs to! I like the sound of this on a lot 🙂 Great review!

    1. Hello Olivia
      I agree with your comments on the name Simone being your sister’s name. I also feel like you when that happens to me as I am reading and a name of a main character is familiar to me. The main character is the narrator of this novel and the author does get the reader into to mindset of her which allows us to be on that journey with her…agreeing or disagreeing with her choices. I felt this book was different and a good change of pace. One of my granddaughter’s is Olivia so your name is one of my favorites. Thanks for your thoughts on this review!

    1. Hello Cee Yes, this book was certainly different. That was why I chose to read it and review it. I would not call it a blockbuster but as a debut novel, I felt the author did a great job in getting into the mindset of a 22 year old woman venturing out into world on her own. Thanks for your comments!

  2. This sounds like an interesting book! And it might be fun to be trapped in a 22-year-old’s perspective in a new city, for awhile. I’d personally enjoy the walk down memory lane of the inside life of working in a restaurant. It is really so much more complex than any of us food-orderers assume, when we dine out somewhere. Thanks for another great review.

    1. Hello Penny
      I liked your thought on looking through the thoughts of a 22 year old’s perspective of moving to a new city alone. I think Stephanie Danler did a great job in that regard. I also agree with you that we as “guests, so to speak”, have no idea what is going on behind the scenes in the restaurants we choose to visit. Complex is a great description I am sure!! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  3. Hello Arlene –
    Wow – this sounds like a great book with a fully packed plot. I like the part about the woman who throws away her food – quite intriguing.
    As always – your insights into the novels your highlight are insightful and interesting.
    Thanks so much – Brian

    1. Hello Brian
      Fully packed plot says it all in regard to this book. Sweetbitter is a debut novel worthy of attention! I thought it was well written and planned out very well. I hope it gets the attention it deserves. Thanks so much for your positive comments.

  4. I like the photography you’ve spread throughout the review. I’m not sure if its the repetition, but I am liking the coral cover more that the original one above.

    Is this a new adult romance book? Restaurant enterprise is intricate and complicated. I like how this book gives insight into that. More so, the patrons are quite interesting, especially the two-napkin wife. She’s such a quirk! Great review, Arlene!

    1. Hi Lonna
      Thanks for your comments. I would not exactly call this a romance novel although romance relationships do play intricate roles, I found the restaurant scenarios themselves were on equal status with the romances being played out. There were also different age groups of the characters that made the book more interesting. This novel was different and not run of the mill and that is why I enjoyed it. Not a blockbuster but just a good book. I agree with you I like the coral cover too! Great to hear from you!

        1. Thank you Lonna yes I am doing well. Flying under the radar a bit lately as they say! So many books so little time!

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