“‘I know you. I remember you from my youth.
You contain multitudes. There is a crush of experience coursing by you.
And you want to take every experience on the pulse.’”
-pg 95, Sweetbitter
Only twenty-two, Tess moves to New York from the middle of no one cares, searching for a new life, one that has to mean something more than her old one. She gets a job at a popular restaurant and is thrust into a world which revolves around French wines, expensive food, and New York’s sleepless nights. She strives to build a life of meaning while simultaneously forging her own identity along the way.
I selected this book from the multitudes for no other reason than because its summary echoed my own life. Like the protagonist, I too had just moved from a small town to a new world teeming with possibility; I had started a new job; I’d just begun struggling to make new friends, to make a new life. And, most blatantly, I was also freshly twenty-two.
Guys. This book isn’t for everyone.
It’s beautifully written, full of quick images that speak to every sense and short scenes that pack a punch. But the text itself can get very abstract and the plot is slow-moving at times and mostly character-driven, at that. The book is broken into four sections: Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring (which flows as the narrator makes it through her first year in New York), and occasionally the prose is broken by excerpts of dialogue that reads like poetry.
What I found infinitely appealing about this book was its healthy dose of realism. Having just recently started a new job myself, I related to her awkward, chaotic beginning at the restaurant in a very familiar way. The beginning scenes are incredibly choppy in a way that—I think—mirrors that chaos, that sensory overload where everything is new, everything is different, there is no comfort, no solid ground.
I loved that, since this is a story about a young girl discovering her own identity and how it relates to the world, she wasn’t even named until halfway through the book, in Winter. Before that moment, everyone referred to her as new girl, or some other namesake replacement. From that moment, there is a sort of shift in the narrative. She becomes more aware of her own desires, enough to at least know what she wants, if not from life, then at least from the people around her. And she transitions by the end of the novel into a true New Yorker, selling her car and taking the train, visiting the museums on the days she has off, quickening her step when she sees something “undesirable” on the street.
By the end of the novel, she leaves the restaurant with a world of new experiences under her belt and a sense of autonomy that hadn’t been there at the beginning. She goes from having no personality to having a defined, driven character.
This is not a feel-good story. Tess’s embarrassing moments often remind me of all of my own (you know the ones, the images that come back to us late at night with the tag line “I shouldn’t have said that”) and reinforce that it’s a part of life to be stupid and make mistakes. She reminded me that at twenty-two it’s likely that you haven’t yet figured out what you want from life, or you at least haven’t figured out how to get it yet. She was in a emotionally taxing, borderline abusive relationship and had to figure it out for herself, but she came out the other side stronger for the experience.
The artistic style in which the novel is written is not for everyone. I was telling my husband about the plot and reading him passages and, an avid reader, he said he wouldn’t be interested in the book. But the style and story resonated with me—for all of the life moments I related to and because I enjoy using many of the writing conventions Danler used and it’s really cool seeing them in print.
I give this a 4.5 because it’s definitely not something I would recommend to everyone, but it’s definitely a well-written, thought-provoking read.
Thanks for reading,