How many appetites does it take to feel satiated? Instead of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter centers on drugs, sex, and food. In the summer of 2006, Tess, a 22-year-old from Ohio, escapes her motherless past and daddy issues by driving to New York and renting an apartment in Williamsburg. Her youth and beauty score her the position of back waiter in a prestigious restaurant in Union Square. With the aid of her coworkers, she develops a palate for cocaine, wine, oysters, tomatoes, and the bartender, Jake.
Sweetbitter doesn’t have much plot. Like a young adult novel, it primarily hangs on its coming-of-age theme via a love triangle. Interspersed throughout the melodrama are meditations on life, food, and relationships. However, Danler’s insights and poetic flourishes cannot compensate for the overall lack of substance, the two-dimensional supporting characters, and the protagonist’s grating sense of entitlement, narcissism, and self-centeredness. On the last page of Sweetbitter, Danler sums up the novel:
“Well, style triumphed over content.”
It’s never quite clear if Danler is offering social criticism on the victimization, both self-inflicted and external, that young women experience, or if she simply considers it part of the process of maturation. In an interview, Danler told The Paris Review that the initial plot was cribbed off Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. While clear traces remain, beyond the glittering prose, Sweetbitter is a pale imitation. However, fans of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey may enjoy this entrée without indigestion.
Sarah Hutchins is an English Instructor and freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She earned a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University and a Bachelors of Arts in English from Portland State University. Her sagging bookshelves suffer from a peculiar fate: for each book read and removed, three or four magically appear in its stead. The books that find a permanent home on these same shelves are typically classics, French literature, philosophical novels and essays, and magic realism.
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