Sweetbitter: A Bittersweet Moment

This week, I read Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter, in anticipation of the six-episode 30-minute dramatic series of the same name, premiering this Sunday, May sixth, on STARZ. Mild spoilers below.

So, first off, I should say that I really liked this novel a lot, and found myself truly transported into its setting of a fancy New York relic of a restaurant (New York has lots of those) in 2006. Full disclosure: it’s possible that the reason I liked it so much is because, in the most solipsistic way, I felt like it was about me (I too was a waitress at a high-end restaurant in Manhattan in 2006). But it’s possible I would have liked it just as much regardless, thanks to Stephanie Danler’s beautiful and poetic writing style.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Miss Danler said that her primary goal in basing her novel on her early waitressing days was not to write a “restaurant tell-all,” but rather to tell a coming-of-age story about a very specific time in a young woman’s life: her early 20s. And, boy, did she accomplish that goal. Reading Sweetbitter is like being swallowed up by every thought, frustration, desire and impulse that comes with being young and looking to break out of a shell. It all rushes back when reading this book.

The city does sleep, the windows darken and the streets vacate. New York dreams us. Wild, somnambulistic creatures, we move unhurried toward our own disappearance at dawn. -Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter

In fact, I felt such a restless, kinetic kind of kinship with Miss Danler while reading her novel, that I Googled a picture of her just to make sure she wasn’t one of my old friends from the restaurant. She isn’t. Turns out, her experiences were based on working at a very similar restaurant several blocks away from mine.

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure if this story is going to work in TV form. The writer has, quite intentionally, left her protagonist as a bit of a blank slate. At just 22, Tess has moved to the city merely to “experience things.” She is such a non-entity at the beginning of the book, we don’t even find out until about two-thirds of the way through Sweetbitter that her name is Tess.

Sweetbitter Season 1 2018
Ella Purnell as “Tess”

Unlike everyone I knew in New York, including myself when I was there, she isn’t trying to BE anything in particular. She’s not an actress or a writer or an aspiring Broadway lyricist. She’s just a girl who was bored back in wherever the hell she’s from and so she moved somewhere more exciting. And because she happens to be pretty, people take to her and perhaps project into her a bit more life and verve than she actually possesses.

But this choice is intentional. Miss Danler almost presents Tess to us as the pure id of youth. She doesn’t have terribly deep thoughts (yet) because she hasn’t become the person she is en route to becoming (yet). It’s a character that I could see many people finding grating, or just boring, but as a result of Miss Danler’s empathetic rendering of her, we instead see the unmolded clay of ourselves at that tender age, wanting to try everything, but not yet knowing why.

It’s a story, and a character, that simply wouldn’t have worked in the hands of a less gracious writer. Miss Danler peppers her (often quite sparse) prose with intermittent poetry, lyrical dialogue, existential musings, and at times, even disembodied snippets of conversation, overheard at the restaurant, which float by sporadically like an art installation made entirely of found objects.

The cast of Sweetbitter

All the petty jealousies of the restaurant are there: the one-upmanship between the servers, the hierarchy of top waiters versus kitchen staff versus bartenders, and so forth. A restaurant is like an ecosystem, with Chef, always capped, never referred to by name (not by you, anyway) as God, and everyone else trying not to get eaten. I found myself getting sweaty palms reading it, remembering the sensation of being “in the weeds” on five tables and forgetting a high-roller’s cappuccino—looking over my shoulder to find the manager retrieving it on my behalf: restaurant shorthand for “You screwed up.”

Yet, the other characters exist almost entirely as ciphers, seen only in relationship to Tess’s experience of them, and as such, never really emerge as three-dimensional people (with the exception of veteran server Simone, an aging beauty who never got the memo that at some point in life, you should graduate from the shark tank and stop eating the guppies—a character who exists in every restaurant I’ve ever worked in).

Late night New York City is also a vital character in this book: the world that opens up for just a few hours, only to those young enough to stay awake for it, and only as a shadow world of the one you were looking for. It’s intoxicating, sure, but as Miss Danler perfectly captures, it is also always elusive, a life raft floating just out of reach.

“We all walk in a cloud of mourning for the New York that just disappeared.” – Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter

What works in novel form, however, might be a tough sell on a TV show. It’s hard to make lyrical writing comes across in a format that doesn’t let us hear characters’ inner voices or the author’s personal interpretation of “what it all means.” Or at least, it’s hard to do so without relying heavily on voiceover (please no). Miss Danler adapted her book herself, so maybe she’s found a way to keep some of those things.

Sweetbitter Season 1 2018
Ella Purnell and Tom Sturridge (as Jake)

The centerpiece of the book is Tess’s obsession and eventual relationship with the hot bartender Jake. And anyone who’s, well, not 22 anymore and has ever met a hot bartender can probably tell from the first “frame,” if you will, how this liaison is going to end. But if we can close our eyes and let ourselves be 22 again, then, like Tess, we too can not know that yet.

And maybe, like Tess, we can get our hearts a little bit broken, just to remember what it was like to want something so badly, and to learn that you can’t always get what you want.

We will find out when the show airs if any of that youthful angst, that poetry of expectation, makes it onto our TV sets, or if it’s just a brief interlude, like a fancy dinner, prettily served but quickly digested and forgotten.

Photos courtesy of Plan B Entertainment and STARZ

For more on your favorite books and adaptations, follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter @DownWorldNovel, “like” us on Facebook at Novel2Screen, or just follow this blog.

2 thoughts on “Sweetbitter: A Bittersweet Moment

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