I didn’t quite fall in love with “Sweetbitter,” the bestselling novel by Stephanie Danler, the way so many others did.
I couldn’t tell whether the racial microaggressions sprinkled throughout were intentional and reflective of the narrator, or unintentional and reflective of the author. And I had a hard time accepting how Tess, the narrator, so entirely sheds her past when she comes to New York.
The book felt full of potential. It could have been about so many things — loss, mental illness, fear, fury — but somehow kept losing the thread. Maybe that was intentional; Tess, after all, is 22, new to New York City, and throwing herself into a job and a man and a mentor and the pleasures of drinking and drugs and semi-friendships. Maybe Tess doesn’t want to let herself feel anything other than her senses for a while. I will say this: the novel perfectly captures the narrowness that can come upon New Yorkers, the way that you can find yourself living in one of the most famous cities in the world and yet isolate yourself to six square blocks at opposite ends of a subway route.
I was a little skeptical about the Starz adaptation of Danler’s novel, which premieres Sunday. I wasn’t sure how the interiority of a first-person narrator would translate into a TV show. But when I sat down to watch the six half-hour episodes of the first season — with a glass of red wine, of course — I was more than pleasantly surprised. I found myself sinking into the precarious decadence that the book may have conveyed for many, but not for me.
It turns out that letting go of Tess’s interior thoughts and narration was maybe exactly what was needed. After all, the novel doesn’t include much NYC scenery, even though it’s ostensibly a very New York book, and that’s easily remedied in the show. We get to see long shots of city blocks, people stumbling around drunk, Tess (Ella Purnell) buying food from a street-cart and throwing up from too much to drink. There’s an airiness to the show, letting the viewer breathe in a way that the book doesn’t quite allow for. There’s more room to interpret, to project, to try to understand the mystery of these people without Tess holding our hand.
The central conflict of the novel is also translated well onto TV: the strange triangle of Tess, the bartender Jake (Tom Sturridge), and the server Simone (Caitlin Fitzgerald). Jake and Simone have a history, a fact that’s conveyed much quicker in the show than in the book: Simone has been caring for Jake since he was a child and his mother died, and yet there’s also a tension between them that speaks to a psychological bond that may be manipulative, unhealthy, maybe even abusive. Tess’s obsession with Jake is less than moving in the show. Tom Sturridge doesn’t get many lines, since Jake is very much the silent brooding type. While in the novel he seems charming, if mean, the show so far is conveying him as a grunting adult teenager.
But Fitzgerald’s Simone is an absolute delight. She is kind, in her way, to Tess. Their dynamic onscreen is so well-realized and the power wielded by Simone is subtle yet extremely palpable. Simone’s vulnerability is much better handled in the show, too, where we can see her facial expressions and the way she moves — she feels real, rather than a projection of Tess’s imagination.
It’s the dynamic between Tess and Simone, the tension between a young woman who grew up motherless and an older woman who seemed to fall into the mothering role far before she was ready, that is the most fascinating and that drives the show, and I hope that if it gets a second season, we’ll get to plunge deeper into it.