I will be discussing the 2016 novel by Stephanie Danler called “Sweetbitter” the novel deals with the subjects of: how having an identity built off of how you are perceived can have the same effect as objectification, workplace solidarity, work crushes that evolve into obsession, the falsified security of work friendships and how naïveté can be a well disguised form of manipulation.
For this article, I want to discuss how Sweetbitter beautifully articulates what it feels like to be the new girl, how first impressions have the ability to drastically impact your working environment, how the banter and sexual harassment has an incredibly thin, blurred line and how finding yourself is not a linear path.
Sweetbitter was one of my favorite reads of 2016 as it had come through a high recommendation from a friend; since then it had always been a novel that I came back to year after year because of how it impacted me emotionally, there was something about how Stephanie’s writing instantly gives a visual representation of the words she wrote on the page; as I had mentioned in my previous article, I have an unhealthy proclivity for desired but deeply unlikeable characters and evocative prose.
I’ve always had this idea in my mind where I wanted to be the type of writer that creates prose which would visually capture what I was creating and imprint an image that you as a reader could follow along with and knew exactly what I meant and how I meant it as the image was so clearly cemented in your mind; I wanted to create writing that would ignite and stimulate the reader so they could feel completely immersed, that they would lose themselves in my work, time would slow around them and they would be completely and utterly consumed with reading my work.
One of my favorite quotes from Sweetbitter:
I had a ritual—and having any ritual sounded so mature that I told everyone about it, even the regulars. On my days off I woke up late and went to the coffee shop and had a cappuccino and read. Then around five p.m., when the light was failing, I would take out a bottle of dry sherry and pour myself a glass, take out a jar of green olives, put on Miles Davis, and read the wine atlas. I didn't know why it felt so luxurious, but one day I realized that ritual was why I had moved to New York—to eat olives and get tipsy and read about Nebbiolo while the sun set. I had created a life that was bent in service to all my personal cravings.
While the quote can be rather grandiloquent in its nature to some, it aptly describes the tone and essence of how the novel portrays womanhood through the lens of defining and demanding your place, redefining what maturity looks like and becoming fully formed; the idea that maturity comes in one version is the reason I would make an educated guess the majority of women in their maturing years after high school can feel so lost without direction as the assumed paths that worked well for previous generations won’t necessarily work for the next.
For those who have not read the novel, I will give my best attempt to summarize the novel as aptly as I can.
Sweetbitter is a novel that takes us through the story of the 22-year-old, smalltown Ohio transplant, named Tess; who drives into New York City seeking something, we don’t know what that something is and lands herself a back-waiter position at highly celebrated restaurant within her new environment her education consists of: champagne, the four noble grapes, cocaine, love, lust, obsession, fine dining rooms and the one dive bar that is safe haven away from their work establishment. She learns to navigate and adapt the everchanging, enchanting, chaotic, grueling, masochistic life that she has chosen. The novel recalls a young woman’s coming-of-age against the background of a glitzy yet grimy elite New York restaurant, Stephanie Danler adroitly conjures the non-stop, high-adrenaline world of the food and service industry she evokes the infinite possibilities, tumultuous beauty and the fragility and brutality of being young and unformed.
The way that Sweetbitter inspired my short film more ways that I can even begin to describe the predominant way was its simplicity all whilst having a great amount of depth and complexity; the novel never felt flat and it had that immersive essence and experience that made me fall in love with writing in the first place the novel made me visually imagine what was going on, on the page. The visual description of Tess’s newness, the bluntness of both Ariel and Simone and the aloof blasé attitude of Jake and the stoic yet eagerness of Will pursuing Tess gripped me like no other; there’s a certain level of toxicity as a theme in the novel which covers the workplace, friendship and relationships as well as the way their behaviors intertwine with one another with the restaurant being the center of it all the aforementioned chaos and toxicity.
Sweetbitter gave me that foundation to assist my characters’ fundamental flaws, let me explain; in my previous article I talked about how Scum’s Wish assisted me in their personality type construction, their unlikable qualities and why I enjoy writing these kinds of characters and how I feed in writing from personal experience, with Sweetbitter it helped me find the beauty of being flawed very few of us are flawless in any capacity, over the years as we grow older, hopefully wiser and less vapid the realization we have is coming to terms is that striving for falsified perfection and flawlessness is a waste of time and embracing our messy, flawed selves makes life in all its serenity and chaos a worthwhile journey. The more introspectively we look the deeper we learn about our humanity, what we deem right from wrong, what we truly desire, enjoying alone time and that the truly expensive cost of life is peace, chaos is free.
Another reason why I fell deeply in love with this novel is the description of chaos
I didn't belong to his world anymore. We called them the Nine-to-Fivers. They lived in accordance with nature, waking and sleeping with the cycle of the sun. Mealtimes, business hours, the world conformed to their schedule. The best markets, the A-list concerts, the street fairs, the banner festivities were on Saturdays and Sundays. They sold out movies, art openings, ceramics classes. They watched television shows in real time. They had evenings to waste. They watched the Super Bowl, they watched the Oscars, they made reservations for dinner because they ate dinner at the normal time. They brunched, ruthlessly, and read the Sunday Times on Sundays. They moved in crowds that reinforced their citizenship: crowded museums, crowded subways, crowded bars, the city teeming with extras for the movie they starred in. They were dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding while we were working, diminishing, being absorbed into their scenery. That is why we—the Industry People—got so greedy when the Nine-to-Fivers when to bed.
This may sound like a juxtaposition but there’s something so serene about this quote I remember working a similar job in retail and then being transplanted into hospitality and the whirlwind of that word never ceased to amaze and disgust me at the same time the only saving grace at the time was that I didn’t work on Sunday’s or Monday’s but it never changed how grueling the job was on my soul, it hardened me, made me callous, abrasive, short and unfortunately how the act of whoring yourself out without overstepping the line determines your worth to a restaurant but in many ways strengthened my resilience and taught me the art of “the show and dance of service.”
My final morsel of information I’ll deliver as to how Sweetbitter is an inspiration to my writing as well as my short film is the complexity of interpersonal relationships, in this case on the sexual end of things. There is almost an incestuous undertone to everyone’s relationships Will has slept with Tess and previously Heather amongst many others, Tess has been with Will, Jake, Omar (who has also slept with Simone) and so forth but this environment where everyone is fair game enhances the grittiness and unravels how unglamourous and predatory – even if you consent – the environment of restaurant that Tess desires to work in is and just how everyone is just a release for stress, frustration, irritation, hunger, longing or abandonment. Even though I had read Sweetbitter before I started my graduate film I remembered how I wanted my film to feel light despite the tense moments throughout the film and I reread the book about a month into writing the script and I noticed how my writing began to change how I described my scene setting, how the dialog became more elongated and floral and how the way I wanted each character to be perceived by someone else that doesn’t belong to them; I wanted to take away their identity and have some characters fight to say “this isn’t me! Let me show you me!” while others gave you who they were whether you liked it or not, some just passed you and other realized the person they portrayed does not match their interior.
To close, I would like to thank you for reaching the end of this article it does mean a great deal to me, the writing process for my graduate film was tumultuous in many ways and kept me up at night for some time after, the process of it all quite nearly killed me but also set me on fire with wanting to create more than ever, let’s see what I do next, and with that it is now my time to go.