Enticed by the cover at the public library and my peaked interest solidified by the bountiful praise on the back, I settled into Sweetbitter: a novel by Stephanie Danler with bated excitement. However, it didn’t last long.
Set in New York, Tess moves to the city to escape her past–which we never learn about–and start a new life working in a fine dining restaurant. The seedy underbelly of the lifestyle of the restaurant staff is quickly revealed and wallowed in throughout the entire novel. Yet, during the day and evening, the staff pull of (mainly) flawless service and the guests are none-the-wiser about the mischief the staff gets into after hours. Heavy drinking and drug-use seems to be a requirement, along with varying co-workers hooking up. There isn’t much of a plot other that a year with Tess as she navigates the restaurant and life on her own.
The book itself reads like a soap opera. Now, whether that sounds appealing to you will likely determine if you would enjoy this novel. For me, it was a great airplane read for that reason since it is simple and a bit of a page-turner, even if it is awful to read about drug abuse and rough sex amid the dirty, gross corners of a fine dining restaurant. At the time, it sufficed. While Danler writes many beautiful sentences and descriptions, there are also trite and flat ones as well that make those passages drag on.
Tess as a character isn’t very likable which can make for a difficult read. She’s the typical early 20s, good-looking girl who gets hired immediately, whines frequently, and is stubborn to the point of annoyance. Yet, she takes on the restaurant position, reads and studies a lot to become knowledge about wine, and really tries to make it on her own in a new, big city. However, there’s just not enough there to like her, especially when she finally gets her way and dates the guy who treats everyone like crap, even putting up with his abuse “love” just to fulfill her infatuation that she can’t get over. While every book doesn’t have to have likable characters, there’s no real substance and growth to Tess in order for the story to pay off, at least for me.
Pitched as a foodie novel about restaurant life, it falls a bit short in that claim. The focus really is on people and relationships, which offers a strong core, but they all just happen to work at in fine dining and on occasion describe what an oyster or an heirloom tomato taste like. Even the wine descriptions are fairly sparse, although I think that the book is better off for trying to concentrate on the characters. There is a wide variety and Danler conveys them all fairly well, giving them more depth it seems than the main character.
All that being said, this novel is certainly a counterpoint to Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale. It was very odd to be reading both of these at the same time.
Recommended?: Not unless you love soap operas and/or The real housewives of [insert major city]. On GoodReads, there’s lots of love vs. hate (or more fairly apathy) for this book so most readers probably should skip it. If you just want a read that is pretty good, with an all-out party-hard, sleep-it-off-before-work drama then as they say in the restaurant biz: “Pick up!”