After finishing “Sweetbitter” and thinking on it for a while, I think I understand why there’s such a sharp divide in how people feel about it. People seem to absolutely love or loathe this book.
I feel both feelings at the same time.
There’s a lot of beauty in “Sweetbitter”. Danler absolutely knows how to turn a phrase and how to set a scene. I found her words melodic. I’ve noticed often that people tend to complain about her descriptions of food not being very “culinary.” They aren’t, but I’m not sure why people wanted them to be. As far as I can discern, this novel is not meant to evoke memories of strong culinary loves. It’s simply a roman à clef and a bildungsroman of sorts. This is a novel about a young woman moving to New York and working in a restaurant. That’s it.
The few descriptions of the culinary world and the food itself are heady and and crisp – they’re enough for what’s meant to be there. It think it’s fairly obvious that the focus of the novel isn’t particularly to ensnare you in endless descriptions of food and culinary adventuring, but to immerse you in the mind of this young woman who happens to be working at this restaurant. Much of the story could function the same if it were removed from its setting and placed elsewhere – like, for instance, an advertising agency or a private school.
“Sweetbitter” functions as a slice of life. I typically don’t find this to be a problem – I love a good slice of life. I like being immersed into characters lives. However, “Sweetbitter” doesn’t work as well as it should.
A good slice of life depends almost entirely on the characters. That makes sense, as the plot is fairly flimsy and isn’t much to hang on. The work is about the characters living their lives and you’re not going to get a nice satisfying ending – this makes sense! But without characters, the work becomes simply a series of slightly meaningful, somewhat connected events.
That’s my problem, really, with “Sweetbitter” – it feels entirely pointless and it’s due to the fact that the characters are nothing. They’re vapid and light as air. I don’t mean vapid as in “This person is a total dingbat” but vapid, as in “There is literally no characterization here”. There’s really nothing – nothing at all – in these characters. I could never actually remember the protagonist’s name (I looked it up and it’s Tess) and she’s really nothing more than a whiny idiot who drinks too much and does too much blow and thinks that makes her an interesting person. All the other characters also run into one another, sounding the same, acting the same – again, drinking too much, doing too much blow and thinking that makes them interesting.
Some people will say that you have to have lived in NYC as a young person to get this. I’m going say that’s bull – I did live in NYC for 4 years as a young person while attending college and no, that’s not what it is to be young in New York. “Sweetbitter” shows what it is to be a certain kind of young New York transplant, and not a very interesting one at that. This New York here isn’t necessarily a real New York because New York, I think, is different for each person that experiences it. I studied in that city, lived in that city, ate my way through that city and love that city and I don’t recognize that city in this book. I was a scholarship student – I didn’t have time to waste in alcohol, drugs and parties and I think the city I found for myself is far richer, far more everything than the one in this book.
This book would be a solid 2 for me, if not for the fact that I listened via audiobook. I adored the narrator, Alex McKenna – her voice is low with a bit of vocal fry, which I’ve apparently figured out that I like in female voices. It’s only because of her work that the two characters I did find interesting (Sasha and Simone – kind of) were actually interesting – if it were just up to Danler’s words and not McKenna’s inflections, I don’t know if I would have actually finished “Sweetbitter”. Sasha was essentially written as a series of Russian stereotypes with a foul mouth and Simone didn’t far much better as the overly Frenchified teacher who is, of course, later to be outstripped by the student.
“Sweetbitter”, I think, illustrates some of the worse qualities of the publishing industry in that so much praise is heaped on something that, while okay, really doesn’t deserve the amount it gets. I can see why so many non-industry people don’t care for this book and are taken aback by the press it’s gotten – there’s nice quality of writing, though it feels as though the author is dying to impress, and it’s just so damn empty. I don’t particularly need – or really, even want – the books I read to have a moral, but I do want them to give me a reason to have spent the time with them that I did. There’s nothing here. It’s empty and vapid and feels a bit like an exercise in vanity. “Sweetbitter” is a hum-ho debut novel. It’s obvious there’s talent there, but it needs to be honed a bit more, sharpened a bit more before its worth raving about.
I will say that it’s inspired me to put aside the novel I’m working on and actually work on my own roman à clef/bildungsroman mashup. Lord knows, if the industry really wants a half baked, navel-gazing coming of age tale, I can absolutely provide one.