‘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.’
This is how we meet Tess, the 22-year-old narrator at the heart of this stunning debut. Shot like a bullet from a mundane past, she’s left a place that feels like nowhere to live in a place that feels like the centre of the universe. Living alone in a New York rented room, she lands a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant and begins to navigate the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a ‘backwaiter’, on and off duty.
As her appetites awaken – for food and wine, but also for knowledge, friendship and a sense of belonging – we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle. A rich novel of the senses – of taste and hunger, seeing and understanding, love and desire – Sweetbitter is ultimately about the power of what remains after disillusionment, and the transformation and wisdom that come from our experiences, sweet and bitter.
I have put off writing this review for a couple weeks because I had no idea how to do this beautiful book justice.
I read it slowly. I kept having to pause and reflect because sometimes Stephanie Danler’s words hit me so close to home, I cringed.
This book epitomises post-university, early twenties life. The cluelessness and the certainty, the moments of blinding arrogance followed by days of crippling doubt. The desire to just run the fuck away.
‘I was never good at the future. I grew up with girls whose chief occupation was the future – designing it, instigating it. They could talk about it with so much confidence it sounded like the past. During those talks, I had contributed nothing.
I had visions, too abstract and flat for me to hold on to.’
There is an undercurrent of insecurity running across the four seasons of Sweetbitter. At the beginning, it’s the spontaneity of the thing. Tess got too bored and left home without a whole lot of preparation. When she arrives in New York, she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. It takes her a day longer to arrive than she was expecting. On the first attempt they wouldn’t let her in. She didn’t know about the tolls.
Then it’s busy restaurant life which her small town coffee shop job could never have prepared her for. It’s trying to learn in a busy restaurant kitchen without getting in anyone’s way – an impossible task. It’s the needing to know about wine when she’s never had any reason to know about wine. It’s the humiliating herself in front of customers.
Later it’s the boy who shows loves by bullying her. It’s the mentor who might actually be the devil. It’s the question of how much cocaine is too much.
‘Maybe you don’t have to compromise yet, but you’re going to have to choose between your mind and your looks. If you don’t, the choices will become narrower and narrower, until they are hardly even choices and you’ll have to take what you can get. At some point you decided it was safer to be pretty. You sit on men’s laps and listen to their idiotic jokes and giggle. You let them give you back rubs, let them buy your drugs and your drinks, let them make you special meals in the kitchen. Don’t you see when you do that, all the while you’re… choking.’
The narrative of this novel is relentlessly present. I have never read such a complex character who’s back story we learn so little of. Tess and her dad aren’t close. We know that Tess’ mother left the family and never came back. We see Tess do the same thing.
But she doesn’t dwell in it.
We don’t know what she studied at college, whether she has any friends outside of those she’s made in New York.
The present is only ever moving forward and it allows for you to have experiences in sync with Tess. There is no constant anticipation of events. There is only the time in front of you, as Tess tells it. This means that the weirdnesses of the novel, specifically Tess’ relationship with her newfound mentor, Simone, build so gradually that you don’t even realise you’re uncomfortable until as if from nowhere you want to toss the damn book across the room.
Simone manages to be both all you’ve ever wanted from a person – someone intelligent and well-travelled taking a special interest in your personal development – and a total nightmare who will abandon all you’ve built together when you become an inconvenience. Simone is a foil to Tess. She is confident, capable and mysterious to Tess’ insecure, lost, open book. Then, as we learn more about her she becomes hopeless next to Tess’ unbreakable velocity. Trapped by a past – and a place – Tess will ultimately shrug off.
There is also a temporariness to the narrative that appealed to me. Despite the moment-to-moment storytelling, the whole thing is written in past tense. Even as you first learn of them, you know that knows these people, this place, are not lasting pieces of Tess’ life. It is fleeting and kind of meaningless. But that’s okay. Life is pretty meaningless, in the end.
What struck me, reading Sweetbitter, if that if nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do*. And Tess does. And though she ends up battered and bruised and in her words ‘fucked for a long, long time’, there is no doubt that she will keep doing, keep living, keep going.
And there’s something in that. What that something is, we get to decide for ourselves.
*totally a quote from Angel