I have often thought that with the advent of Modernism in Literature, readers have grown impatient with the long, lush descriptions of old, instead preferring the clipped sentences of Hemingway and the dryness of Camus. Not that these are not valid and important styles of writing, but there’s something beautifully nostalgic about writing that pays homage to the world around us, that values imagery and description just as much as plot. Stephanie Danler’s willingness to include both in her new novel Sweetbitter is what makes the book stand apart.
The novel follows a young woman who moves away from an unspecified part of America for New York City to work at a famous restaurant. It is clear that this other place does not matter, because the most important character in the novel is New York City. Like so many works of fiction before it, Sweetbitter examines the dreamscape that is New York City for many people. But unlike the trope of, “New York City is gritty and not the dream you believe it to be,” or the Sex and the City trope of, “In New York City all your dreams can come true,” Danler walks a more true-to-life line, revealing the city to be, as the title implies, sweet and bitter at the same time. Our main character revels in a city that shelters so many kinds of people, that changes dramatically from season to season, but she also finds the city to be cold and terribly lonely at times, a city that sometimes needs alcohol and a few hits of cocaine to look beautiful. To read Danler’s prose is to experience the city from your armchair. Danler’s lush descriptions of the restaurant—of oysters and red wines and cheese—of the seasons of the city—the thickness of summer, the freshness of autumn—and of people, are transformative.
It’s a novel in which the characters are undeniably secondary to the description. The characters are thinly drawn, an unfortunate weakness for a writer who writes so beautifully. Other than the protagonist, who becomes familiar only because readers spend so much time in her head, everyone else seems to inhabit some kind of cliché—tortured bartender; knowledgeable, well-traveled older woman; manager who sleeps with his female employees; edgy, cocaine-toting lesbian. When the protagonist eventually gives up on her relationships with these people, I did not have enough emotional investment in them to care much about it.
It is impossible for me to dislike Sweetbitter. As a writer myself, it is often a breath of fresh air to read an author who so unabashedly worships the written word. Reading Sweetbitter is undeniably a literary feast. Occasionally throughout the book, Danler eschews narration and just gives readers lines and lines of dialogue from various people in the restaurant, and the result reads more like poetry than prose.
Certainly with some more attention to character, Danler would be unstoppable.
Author: Stephanie Danler
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: May 2016
Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.