When I read Stephanie Danler’s debut novel “Sweetbitter” last summer, I was not prepared or even sure of what to expect. I had my dream internship after completing my first year of college 900 miles from home and felt, for the first time, like I knew what adulthood truly was. Despite spending my days reading manuscript submissions at work, I read every single day on my train ride home. At the suggestion of a friend, I decided to pull my copy of “Sweetbitter” out from my never-ending pile of To-Read’s and settled in with blissful optimism.
Reading this book is like having the wind knocked out of you.
“Sweetbitter” was released around the same time as Emma Cline’s debut “The Girls” back in 2016. Both books depict young women on the precipice of something more in their lives and the way in which they both write their novels (I’ve described the style as “raw and unnervingly personal” to friends before) not only touches upon, but grips and defines something in readers that they did not previously know was present within them.
Danler manages to capture the sensations of coming of age, of defining individual identity, and of just existing as a young woman in the world despite centering it around a specific narrative. Although I worked in a bakery throughout high school (and learned an exorbitant amount about interpersonal relations from that experience), I cannot relate to the protagonist, Tess’s, involvement in the New York City restaurant scene. Yet, I could not shake the gnawing sense that Danler had seen the world exactly as I was seeing it every morning on my way to work and every evening on my way home because the way Tess saw the world, every morning and every evening, was so unbelievably relatable that referring someone to the book is the only way I could ever explain my experience.
As Danler herself explains, “Sweetbitter.. is about a moment when “you’re waiting for your life to start and it has already started.” It depicts a concept which I recently stumbled upon: liminal spaces. A liminal space is a point of transition when you’re standing on the precipice of something more, but haven’t quite gotten there yet (i.e. the sensation of entering adulthood based on the passing of milestones like employment and education, but without the sense that you have personally grown up in any specific way). “Sweetbitter” not only portrays a character in a liminal space, but depicts the liminal space in which all women find themselves in as they transition to adulthood in their 20’s.
The pain and the beauty and the relatability of the novel are all in the written narrative which makes it hard to translate to the screen; yes, Danler herself wrote the scripts for the show which is promising. However, bringing something so personally resounding as this novel to the life is borderline impossible because the novel isn’t about Tess as a character the way the show will likely be. Tess is not a character to root for, the way most TV protagonists are. Tess is the worst parts of you, the last remnants of your childhood that slowly slip away when you aren't paying attention. She is what about ourselves we don’t want to look at because we know those are the things that define and construct who we truly are. By putting a face to this emotion, this sensation and realization, one closes off the personalization of the narrative we all share and just makes it about a girl trying to find her way in New York City, something we've all seen before.