Sweetbitter, and the idealism of being a young woman in New York

Cassandra A. Baim

Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter is nothing short of breathtaking. In summary only, it doesn’t sound like it would be very interesting — a 22 year old woman moves alone from her sleepy Midwestern town to New York, where she becomes a server at an upscale restaurant in Lower Manhattan. Between the bright pink covers of this novel, Danler uses all five senses to paint an incredibly visceral picture of what it means to be a twenty-two-year-old woman in 2006 in New York City.

Sweetbitter is a coming-of-age novel in its truest form because it deals expertly with one of the greatest conflicts of young adulthood — walking the line between not being able to take care of yourself and desperately wanting to. Tess takes the job at the restaurant to afford her rent. She is dubbed “little one” by her mentor there, an equal parts affectionate and condescending moniker. Her much older coworkers exist in a suspended adolescence, drinking and doing drugs together each night after the restaurant closes. Tess joins them, but most nights has to be carried home by one of them. Danler never once demonizes any of her actions. Tess is written as old enough to know what she wants, at least in the immediate sense, but young enough to make mistakes getting there. When she immediately becomes smitten with the restaurant’s bartender, she approaches the crush with a youthful uncertainty. She soon trades in being tongue-tied around him for a cautious confidence. By the end of the novel, Tess grows up the way we all do — in fits and spurts, her maturity only provoked by the exuberant messiness of being a young woman in New York.

I was once that young woman who had just arrived in New York. I still am a young woman in New York, but when I had arrived here three years ago, I was more like Tess than I am now. I was 22, just graduated college, and without a job that could have lead to a career. I was moving to New York in 2013, where the grime and grit of the old New York I had read about as a teenager had been replaced with intense ambition and drive. I was terrified — not of being mugged or hit by a rogue taxi, but of failure. I had grown up on a diet of Woody Allen films and Sex and the City. I had seen the movies and read the books about young people moving to New York and I knew how easy it would be for this place to chew me up and spit me back out onto the front lawn of my parents’ house. I felt pressure, be it in phone calls from my parents asking me about my job search or my friends making strides for themselves in their chosen careers, to make something of myself in a quantifiable way. I took some shifts at a coffee shop, and sent out resumes for jobs I knew I was not qualified for, and jobs I was not even sure if I wanted. My friends worked their way into careers as I hopped from service job to service job. Despite moderate financial insecurity, I felt satisfied. I went on dates, I went to concerts, I stayed out all night, and I found my favorite hidden pockets of the city. But I needed Tess three years ago. I needed to read about a young woman who lacked a plan, but not ambition. Her growing palette for fine oysters and wine mirrored her yearning for passion and acceptance. I similarly wanted for that same independence and the privilege of making my own choices — good and bad ones.

Reading Sweetbitter instills in me a sense of saudade. “Saudade” is a Portuguese word that has no direct English translation—meaning, it can have many. My favorite translation is a melancholy nostalgia for something that has not even happened. Sometimes I twist the meaning to fit how I feel in a particular moment, and in the case of Sweetbitter, I think of it as a feeling of longing for something that happened too long ago, or nostalgia for a different era. I don’t want to be 22 years old again and I’ve never wanted to work in the restaurant industry. I have saudade for a New York I have never known, a time when Williamsburg was affordable and iPhones hadn’t been invented yet. I have saudade for a time when it wasn’t who you knew when you got here but the friends you made when you arrived, and realized you knew no one. But more than that wistfulness that might be mistaken for despising my own generation (which is not true), I have saudade for idealism. Tess envisions herself in a few years, preparing coq au vin for dinner parties and having intellectually stimulating conversations with its guests. I, along with every other young woman who moved to New York had those same visions. I still do. I never dreamed of being a publishing magnate, or a famous writer (though I wouldn’t complain if that were to happen), instead I envisioned myself making new friends, falling in and out of love, and learning from my own mistakes. I dreamt of confidently calling New York my home.

Literature is only as great as the lessons readers take from it. I read Sweetbitter and feel retroactively secure about my young adulthood. The novel is not a parable or an allegory. There is no moral to be unpacked in Danler’s beautiful prose. But within the novel’s 368 pages lies a lesson — that it is okay to be young, it is okay to not know. Tess’s first year in New York taught me that the uncertainty of being a young adult makes way for some incredible experiences — falling in love, getting your heart broken, and tasting everything New York has to offer, edible or not.

Cassandra Baim grew up outside of Chicago and earned a BA in English from Syracuse University. She has previously been published on Medium and The Flexist. When she’s not selling books at New York’s most famous bookstore, she enjoys biking across the Brooklyn Bridge and teaching her cat to play fetch.

Submit a comment