Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Review: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

2016  368 pages  Oneworld Publications

Twenty –two year old Tess is a restless graduate from a broken family. With the intention of finally starting her life, she moves to New York City with no real plan but a need to do something. She manages to get a job at one of the most exclusive restaurants in town as a back-waiter and Tess is thrown in the comforting commotion of New York life. It’s at her new job that she becomes fascinated by two people: Simone, a know-it-all server and Jake, a handsome yet moody bartender. While the restaurant becomes her home and her colleagues her new family, Sweetbitter follows Tess through a year of her life as she grows and learns about the complexities of human relationships.

Author Stephanie Danler certainly has an intricate way with words and throughout reading this I had to remind myself that this is a debut novel, and not the work of a writer with many years more experience. If I could describe Sweetbitter in one word it would be raw - everything is stripped of glamour and the claustrophobic, monotonous daily cycle of Tess consumes you. The flair in Tess’s life is food and wine, things that are both treated as an art form in the world of the restaurant, and to say that Danler did a good job at creating a world within a Union Square New York restaurant might sound bizarre, but it’s true. It’s a microcosm of New York life – everything is always moving and it’s the chaotic, punishing routine of a back-waiter that awakens Tess’s appetite for food, for love, and for life.

At times this felt like a novel I could really relate too thanks to the details Danler provides of Tess’s experience working as a waiter. Having worked as a waitress myself for many years the similarity between Tess’s working life and my own were incredibly similar, and even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant environment before the overall tone of the novel has a strong sense of nostalgia. The whole story seems to capture and echo the general commotion of everyday life and I thought it was very clever how Danler managed to capture that in her writing.

The prose, the style, and the execution of this novel are all excellent, but I found this to be a rather slow, quite gentle read. When I was reading, I was interested to continue but this isn’t a novel I devoured in a few days, and I don’t mean this in a bad way because some books you feel you want to take your time with. Sweetbitter for me is one of those novels. It’s dreamy and raw and ultimately a study of a young woman as she learns about life and about herself. There isn’t a lot going on in terms of plot and with the exception of Tess I didn’t particularly like many of the other characters. As I said, this novel isn’t sugar coated and the characters have their flaws – in many ways it was the reality of the story that made it so enchanting.

Overall rating 3 stars

My proof copy Sweetbitter was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

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