Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (not providing a link because I don’t want to endorse it in any way) must have had an amazing marketing team. I encountered it constantly this summer/early fall: I saw it on blogs, Instagram feeds, and featured at a few bookstores. So when I saw it on the new books shelf at the library, I checked it out immediately. I love reading books about New York City, I love food writing, so it seemed like an easy choice.
Guess what? This book was terrible. If it's supposed to be a love story, I pity the author and her conception of love. Almost everything about it felt cynical, bitter, and self-serving. None of the characters seemed to have any real regard for anyone beyond themselves. Also, I kind of feel like Maude Flanders talking like this, and I’m usually not a prude when it comes to the books I read, but all the physical relationships in this novel felt gross and gratuitous, not to mention completely empty of any real lasting emotion. Maybe it’s because I skimmed the last few dozen pages because at that point I was so pissed I was even reading this book… but it seemed there was no redemption, no clarity achieved, no satisfying denouement of any kind. And may I add: reading about endless days and nights of young people doing drugs/being hungover is straight up NOT INTERESTING.
After finishing, I thought about some of the novels I’ve read this year that I have enjoyed. (You know how I appreciate a good compare and contrast / turning everything in my life into a self-improvement lesson.) The common thread in all these books I love? Well... love. Characters who care for each other despite their flaws. Characters who overcome obstacles and their own personality defaults with the help of those around them. Messages of real solidarity within struggle. Spoiler alert: All those things were completely devoid in Sweetbitter.
So here are a few of my recommendations:
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt was a nice surprise. A sweet coming of age story, quite free of cliches and just an overall pleasant read.
Lila, one of the Gilead novels by Marilynne Robinson (stories about 2 pastors in small town Iowa in the 1950s) is almost unbearably earnest and tender. Robinson writes with such force that each sentence, each word feels crucial, weighted, necessary. (I'm a very fast reader and her writing forces me to slow down in a way that feels almost mysical to me.) It's a story about love when love is not easy. I can't even tell you anymore because I can't do it justice. Read her books!
Last of all... and obviously this doesn't need my recommendation, but: I read the Harry Potter series for the first time as a 35 year old and I was completely surprised at how much I embraced it. It’s FULL of love in all it’s forms: friendship, romance, reverence, respect, fellowship. Harry and Hagrid, Harry and Sirius, Harry / Ron / Hermione, Harry & the Weasley family: each of these relationships demonstrate a different kind of love and make the series so enjoyable. Plus, after getting super into these books, I realized it's never worth it to dislike or avoid something just because it's popular, or look down on people who do.
So yeah, that's my literary lesson of 2016: Give things a chance! Don't be cynical! Never apologize for liking things that some other jerk may think is corny or dumb! Consume media joyfully!