4 of 21
368 pages; Knopf
Reading Stephanie Danler's ravishing debut novel, Sweetbitter, is like inhabiting the heady after-midnight hours of a city drunk on its own charms, then enduring the next day's crushing hangover. It is a serenade to Manhattanites in their 20s who are still not sure if New York, with its "monstrous freedom," is exactly where they're supposed to be.

Danler spent time working as a backwaiter at the legendary Union Square Cafe, a personal history she mines for her slightly jaded but not yet world-weary 22-year-old protagonist, Tess, also a server. Tess feels every emotion, every encounter "on the pulse"—she hasn't acquired the emotional armor that will make her harder to hurt. 

Danler's descriptions of food and drink go beyond mouth-watering, verging on orgasmic: "He handed me the beer. It was nearly black, persuasive as chocolate, weighty. The finish was cream, it matched the oyster's creaminess." Ditto for how she captures the distinction between sex and true eroticism: "I treated my body like a sieve—it all passed through me. With Jake, I wasn't a sieve but a bowl. Whatever he gave me, I could hold. When he filled me, I expanded."  

It's hard to recall a novel that better captures the self-conscious innocence of the young, or that articulates more succinctly why idealism isn't always naïveté. "You think I'm stupid. I'm not. I was just hopeful," Tess says, offering a poignant reminder that cynicism is usually just romanticism grown bitter.
— Leigh Haber