Sweetbitter (★★★☆☆)

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Stephanie Danler  *  Knopf  *  May 24, 2016  *  368 Pages

Advanced Reader Copy provided by Amazon Vine.

Tess has come to New York to both forget her life and begin it. She’s young and alone, and she has no idea what she’s going to do with herself now that she’s finally HERE. With just a few years of barista experience behind her, Tess recognizes she isn’t in a position to be choosy about her next job, but she’s determined to work with food in whatever capacity she can.

So when the owner of an upscale Manhattan restaurant offers her a trial job as a lowly backwaiter, Tess more than happily accepts. Though she’s immediately overwhelmed by the fast pace and aggressive personalities, she listens and she learns quickly. Over time, she becomes more familiar with the food and wine, even impressing her boss and coworkers with her ability to detect and appreciate certain flavors. And she finally begins to make friends. And enemies. Well, maybe mostly frenemies.

I had high hopes for this book. I’ve read a bunch of food memoirs and food-centered fiction. I don’t consider myself a “foodie” or anything, but I do love reading about other people’s passion for cooking, serving, and sharing a meal. I’ve found that books about food, whether fiction or not, tend to be intense and emotional, and that always keeps my attention.

Sweetbitter is definitely that. Tess is a mess, and she only gets messier as the story progresses. Her character comes really close to being irritating, honestly, but she’s still likable enough. On the one hand, I understand that there is a coming-of-age thing happening here–Let’s follow naive and inexperienced Tess as she attempts to navigate the dark, cold underbelly of NYC!–so, of course we are going to have to watch her make some dumb mistakes. But it’s when the story morphs into “Tess falling hard for a distant and mysterious (dare I say, stupid?) bartender named Jake,” that I began feeling my brain slowly close up shop–like, yeah, I’m pretty sure I know where things go from here. Imma take a nap, cool?

In the end, Sweetbitter is a solidly okay story. It’s slightly predictable and just a touch overwritten. Its characters are borderline cliche and very nearly annoying. The whole of it entertained me for a while…and then it kind of dragged me down. If you like food-centered fiction, there are better choices out there.

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