Bitter in the Mouth
by Monique Truong
Reviewed by Maya Muir
Monique Truong burst onto the literary scene in 2004 with The Book of Salt, the story of a gay Vietnamese man who becomes the cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during their years in Paris. By invoking Stein, Truong set the bar high, but the novel was justly hailed as a startlingly assured debut.
Bitter in the Mouth, her follow-up, tells of Linda, a young girl growing up in a dysfunctional family in a small Southern town in the 1970s. It appears at first like a more typical first novel (coming of age, etc), though, as in The Book of Salt, Linda tells her first-person story retrospectively, moving backward and forward in time, which allows a sophisticated perspective and voice. Also, both books explore the perspective of an outsider ... but I get ahead of myself.
Who makes up this dysfunctional family? A brutally acerbic grandmother who calls her cross-dressing younger brother "Baby Harper" into his 50s; a buttoned-down and largely-absent father; a repressed and unaffectionate mother. Above all, the family keeps secrets and doesn't talk, even when issues reach elephantine proportions.
Amid this, who is Linda, and how can she be an outsider? Only after a significant chunk of pages does the reader learn that she arrived, "fully formed as Athena," into the family at age 7. This revelation quickened my interest, at the same time that it made me scratch my head. Nor was this the only time Truong withheld key information. This strategy does build tension. It also mimics the way you get to know someone: You go around a few times before secrets spill, and there's a conversational tone to the book, as if it were being told to a friend. Still, there were several instances when I wanted to cry, "Wait, shouldn't I have known that already?"
In The Book of Salt, cooking and food were themes and rich sources of metaphor. In Bitter in the Mouth, synesthesia plays a somewhat analogous role. Linda tastes words: the name Wade tastes of orange sherbet, selfish tastes like corn on the cob. Because taste-sense floods her whenever she learns new vocabulary, Linda's synesthesia makes her even more of an outsider and impedes her progress in school. This provides a funny scene when, in high school, Linda and her best friend strategize how to dampen her incomings (taste-senses) so she can fulfill her academic potential. The trait is odd and interesting, but thematically it works less effectively than the culinary in Salt, and sometimes, reproduced on the page, it's a lot to wade through. Also, given how deeply wounded Linda turns out to be, her academic and career successes later in life are startling.
Still, Truong is a powerful writer. Though I had moments of doubt, I read on, carried forward by her characters and her strong prose. Bitter in the Mouth may be a less perfect work than Salt, but it is still a flavorful, haunting journey.