Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler’s debut novel is supposed to convey the reality of young adulthood mixed with the complexity of working in an upscale Manhattan restaurant and growing up. However, the end result is insipid and inane at best.
Tess, Danler’s small-town grown and rather clueless protagonist, arrives in New York City after college. Not really knowing what she wants to do with her life, Tess is certain that she wants to be far away from the surroundings where she grew up. Danler doesn’t reveal Tess’ surname, but she could have named her Tess of the d’Urbervilles due to the ingenuity and downright foolish qualities that link her to Thomas Hardy’s protagonist.
Danler cleverly hits the nail on the head displaying the absolute sense of entitlement that plagues the millennial generation. Tess is one such example of this. Untrained and unqualified for anything other than barista work, she responds to interview questions for the position of backwaiter at a famous restaurant with arrogance and cringing ignorance. Danler clearly indicates that Tess gets hired due to her pretty face and not because of her talent or experience, but she is good at making us initially believe that there’s hope for Tess further on.
But of course there is none. As Tess makes herself more comfortable around the fast-paced restaurant environment and around her equally fast-paced co-workers, she begins to indulge in all-night excess of drugs, alcohol, and sex. All the while she pines away for the restaurant’s bartender Jake, who is in turn involved in a bizarre relationship with Simone, a senior server at the restaurant and a seemingly irreplaceable in-house wine and food connoisseur.
Predictably enough, Tess, Jake and Simone begin a push-and-pull love triangle, and by the end of it it’s hard to discern if Tess is supposed to be in love with Jake, Simone or both. According to Tess, Jake teaches her about desire and the hunger for love while Simone awakens her want for knowledge. While this is all very bohemian, it’s not Tess’ ambivalent sexuality and raw appetites for pretty much everything that’s confusing here, it’s the fact that she seems to want and expect a sense of normality in her relationship with Jake when the way she lives her life is anything but normal.
The novel is told from Tess’ POV, and this was maybe an unwise decision on Danler’s part. A third-person narrative could have given the Tess and the rest of the characters much needed depth, or perhaps lessen their daft personalities. Tess’ constant stream of consciousness is annoying to say the least. While the insider description of restaurant and wine terminology serves as a colorful and captivating tableau, it’s not enough to make up for the main character’s lack of real substance.
It is precisely within the characters where Sweetbitter’s problems reside. None of them are likeable least of all Tess, Danler’s springy drug and alcohol-infused dancing queen. One of Tess’ lines in the book is absolutely precious: “I had been operating my entire life upon the assumption that most men wanted to fuck me.” She says this as she is about to make a stupid mistake that she knows can badly backfire, but she plunges ahead anyway. Apparently the knowledge that “all men want to fuck her” trumps any sort of common sense that even a twenty-two year old provincial ingenue should possess.
If we don’t care for the characters, why read the book in the first place? Stephanie Danler deserves the benefit of the doubt; her prose is at times extremely engaging and perhaps with Sweetbitter she was aiming for something much more profound than what the end result spun out. And maybe it was her full intent to introduce highly unlikable characters. Many authors do this with the purpose of establishing some kind of harsh life lesson for the characters in the end. The problem is that we never see this played out with Tess, Jake or Simone. There is no evidence of character growth or redemption anywhere, and this is where the novel backfires most tragically.
At the end of all three hundred and fifty-two pages of the book, it is difficult not to wish that much like a glass of soured wine, both Sweetbitter and its colorless characters could be unceremoniously sent back to the server.