A server at an upscale French restaurant, Stephanie Danler, presented Peter Gethers -senior VP and editor at Penguin Random House-with her unfinished first novel, earning a high six figure book deal. It seemed like everyone was anticipating Sweetbitter's release, and those lucky enough to receive an advance copy were raving about it long before it landed in public hands. The striking cover solidified its spot on my to-read list.
Sweetbitter follows Tess for a year after her arrival in New York as she lands a job at a restaurant -modeled after The Union Square Cafe- eats her first oyster, and is introduced to the world of wine. Unconventional but spot on descriptions of food are accompanied by tumultuous and intriguing relationships with mysterious coworkers. Danler conveys infatuation especially well when introducing Jake, a bartender that embodies all the typical traits of an emotionally unavailable leather jacket wearing man. Although Tess is enamored by Jake, she is also allured by the senior server Simone and her knowledge of wine, literature, and European life.
At the start of this novel it seems that there was so much to be unveiled. However, after devouring roughly 100 pages it began to feel repetitive. The novel takes place largely in three locations: the unnamed restaurant, Park Bar, and Tess' room in a house we otherwise read very little about. The consistency in setting created redundancy. Beyond serving, drinking too much, and feeling sorry for herself, there was little to no complexity. In an effort to portray the main characters as mysterious, they are left under developed and specifics are glossed over. There are entire sections of only dialogue, creating urgency and chaos. Danler also includes pages of stream-of-consciousness from restaurant patrons.
As Tess idolizes both Jake and Simone, the plot is lost. The description of foods and the exploration of wine and terroir was compelling. Enough so that I purchased my own wine atlas shortly after reading about Tess selecting one off Simone's bookshelf. The novel was absorbing in some ways and mundane in others. Either way, Stephanie Danler's literary ability is impressive and I will absolutely read her future work.