“Sweetbitter”: An Education in Guilty Pleasures

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This novel, by Stephanie Danler, explores the complexities of coming of age in a big city. 

Penny Belnap

As college students, particularly at Colgate, we are quite familiar with indulgence. Whether yours is the Jug, YoGate, the boy or girl a floor below, Slices or a combination of all of the above, we all have our guilty pleasures. In her novel Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler explores the relationship between guilt and pleasure. 

Sweetbitter begins with the narrator, Tess, coming to New York with nothing and wanting nothing but a change. The rest of the novel tells of her coming-of-age in New York City as a backwaiter at the Union Square restaurant. We watch her learn about indulgence for the sake of indulgence – in food, wine, drugs, friendship, sex, love and New York City itself. When Tess is hired, the owner of the restaurant tells her, ‘There are many endeavors to bring pleasure to people. Every artist assumes that challenge. But what we do here is the most intimate. We are making something you take inside you. Not the food, the experience” (p. 18).   

In Sweetbitter, Danler does just this – creating not just a delicacy, but also an experience. Sweetbitter is about the pursuit of pleasure in all its forms, and as such, is a pleasure unlike any other to read. 

Despite never having waited tables, I found it immediately easy to relate to this book. I, too, came to New York wanting a change (though I came with three suitcases and a car full of boxes, instead of nothing) and found myself immersed in an education caught between the balance of “work hard” and “play hard.” The particular fun of Danler’s novel, however, is that the work of the restaurant is itself a lesson in pleasure – how to please the taste buds.   

The main romantic conflict in the novel is the love triangle between Tess, the restaurant’s bartender, Jake and the senior server, Simone. Jake is much older, tattooed, and just mean enough that Tess is helplessly attracted to him – while at the same time, desiring the wild-haired, cultured Simone. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Danler uses food to craftily foreshadow the direction of the love triangle: Tess and Jake’s attraction begins when they sneak oysters together in the restaurant, Simone gives Tess lessons in wine, and the three of them begin to clash at a roast-chicken dinner party Simone hosts. At times, Simone overshadows Tess, making her seem like a supporting character in her own life. I wanted to cheer on Tess and Jake, but at times Simone was just so alluring that I couldn’t blame Jake for his unwavering interest in her. 

The problem with many of the characters in the novel, though all are extremely well-defined and unique, is that none of them last. Each of them is introduced and portrayed like a perfectly crafted dish, but they disappear when Tess leaves the restaurant like plates after a meal has been cleared. Tess forges relationships which are unsustainable outside of the restaurant, a somewhat unsatisfying turn of events for the reader. 

Despite the impermanence of the characters, I adored the way in which Danler spun together the experience of “sweet” and “bitter.” This is the tale of the next-morning hangover, the pang in your chest when your text is read but not responded to, the Slices food baby. I loved how this novel paralleled the college experience – you pursue the sweet, you feel the bitter, but in the end, the two are inseparable. Readers will similarly want to relive the exquisite adventure that is reading Sweetbitter. You will begin by trying to wolf down the novel like a delicious meal, but then learn to savor the words in all their intricacies. The novel begins sweetly and takes some bitter turns, but it is precisely the combination of the two that make the novel an experience that readers can carry with them like a full stomach after that third slice.