Sweetbitter: Book Review by Arlene.
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.
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.
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.
Check out Sweetbitter discussion questions!