When I was fourteen, my best friend’s older sister said, “You know you like a boy if you think about him when you’re getting dressed.” Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is the grown-up book version of those words (finding your way with unfamiliar rules).
Tess, age 22, arrives in New York with not much to her name except determination to make a life for herself in the city. She lands a job in a notable Union Square restaurant and the staff become Tess’s ‘family’, with her life revolving around the restaurant, both on and off duty.
Set over a single year, the book is structured around the seasons, cleverly reflecting the changes in menu and in Tess’s life. Of course, a coming-of-age story is not complete without a love interest and Tess predictably falls for the ‘bad boy’ – damaged bartender, Jake.
He could turn himself off like a switch and I stood in the dark, waiting.
But there’s also Simone, experienced, confident, worldly, who takes Tess under her wing. Of Simone, Tess says –
She had lovers and breakups, an analyst, a library, acquaintances she ran into on the street whose names she couldn’t call to mind. She belonged to herself only. She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes.
It sounds like a love triangle but is actually far more complex and over the course of the year, Tess’s relationships with Jake and Simone grow and shift.
Stories about twenty-somethings often have a hint of condescension – when the narrator reflects on their experience with the benefit of time or distance, the ‘coming-of-age’ elements are made light of or minimised. Not so in Sweetbitter – it’s smart and honest, and accurately reflects the fact that there are often more ‘bad bits’ and mistakes than there are ‘timely lessons learnt’.
I wanted to see Jake repentant. The ugly truth was that I could forgive him anything as long as he still desired me.
Danler writes well. The dialogue is believable and her descriptions of New York and the restaurant are interesting –
We went outside. The air tasted of steel knives and filtered water.
That was the morning I committed the first sin of love, which was to confuse beauty and a good soundtrack with knowledge.
I liked the angst without the bitterness; and that the story was hopeful and forward-looking, minus the cockiness – I think it’s quite difficult to get that balance in a coming-of-age story.
Simone had been right. Our senses are never inaccurate, just our interpretations.
4/5 Don’t over think it, just enjoy.
“When they’re like this don’t fuck with them. Just a little salt.”
“Wow,” I said. And I meant it. I had never thought of a tomato as a fruit – the ones I had known were mostly white in the center and rock hard. But this was so luscious, so tart I thought it was victorious. So – some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning.