Thursday, December 9, 2021

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler


Okay, so I found this book in a Little Free Library and it looked really fun. I'd actually heard of it-- and I'm usually the last to hear about anything, so that said something. Looking at the critical reviews kind of upset me, though, because one of the common complaints I saw was that it was unrealistic for people working in a service position to be so familiar with literary references and allusions and aspire to, you know, the sweet life.

Whether you love or hate the book, I think that kind of thinking is classist because it kind of implies that only people with "good" jobs are intelligent and if you have a "bad" job, you must be either stupid or not book smart. But there are plenty of people working in service positions with college degrees-- especially now. I used to be one of those people and it was a truly miserable experience.

I worked in a service position where people proceeded to treat me like absolute shit. I had people threaten to call corporate and get me fired because we were out of Turkeys on fucking the-day-before-Thanksgiving. I had full on adults throw TEMPER TANTRUMS because we were out of Anna and Elsa dolls the day before Christmas. I got called "bitch" and all sorts of other fun names for telling people "no, this isn't a trading post, I can't exchange the mountain of goods you don't have a receipt for for a brand new XBox" and "ma'am, please stop trying on all the lipstick, we have to throw out the used ones." I had a guy try to scam us with fake coupons and throw a bitch fit in front of his kids, before telling them, "We're not having Christmas this year, because this woman doesn't want you to have your presents." And then the kids cried. Thanks, Worst Dad Ever.

One of my favorite incidents happened on Christmas Eve, though. This lady was with her grumpy teenage daughter and they were being your typical harried holiday customers. I was putting up a display of holiday decor and the lady and the daughter were fighting about her college plans. And then the lady said, quite clearly, "If you don't go to college, you're going to end up like that woman right there." *points at me*

At this point, I was just done. Done with the holidays. Done with this woman. Done with the display that wouldn't stay up. So I said, "Actually I went to [good college] and I still ended up here. Sometimes you just really need a job and you have to take what you can." Well, daughter's jaw dropped and woman looked horrified. I thought she was going to apologize but then she said, "Oh really? How did you get into your school? Do you have any admission tips for my daughter?" Sincerely and without any shame. Fuck this woman.

So, you know, it's totally possible to work in the service industry and not be *sniff* dumb pleb, you snobs. And honestly, people in the service industry work pretty damn hard, college degree or no, and it seems pretty fucking rude to spit on them from your ivory towers. I've often said that everyone should be required to do at least two years of waitressing or retail. I think it makes you a nicer person. (less) 

And throughout all this, did I aspire to greater things? Oh yes. Oh, God yes. So this is one element of SWEETBITTER that I actually really appreciated. It feels semi-autobiographical and you really get a sense of Tessa's sense of angst and ennui working in an industry that is so adjacent to the rich, while she's being treated like stage dressing or a prop. The writing is gorgeous and the descriptions of food are probably the best part of this book. The reason I'm giving it a two is that it is kind of boring. Not a lot happens, and feel like it would have been better either as a short story, an actual memoir (if this is, indeed, a semi-autobiographical work), or maybe as a romance. I don't know, I just felt like the book was trying too hard to be more than it was and it ended up not being all that fun to read.

I can see why they made it into a TV series, though. And you might like this book if that sort of wistful appeal for luxury and finer things is something you relate to. It seems like a lot of people jumped on the hate bandwagon for this book-- for things that aren't even necessarily the book's fault-- and I actually liked a lot of the things other people complained about. I just wish it was a little more memorable.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

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