three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-Bitter in the MouthThe Vietnamese-born Monique Truong earned many awards for her first novel, The Book of Salt ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2003), the story of a gay Vietnamese man who cooks for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in World War I-era Paris.

The Story: Born with a form of synesthesia, Linda Hammerick tastes words, a trait that gives her emotional power. Growing up in a small North Carolina town in the 1970s and 1980s, Bitter in the Mouth follows Linda at school, where she and her best friend Kelly ("canned peaches") fawn over Dolly Parton and vie for a boy named Wade ("sherbet"); at college at Yale; and in New York City in her 30s. Moving back and forth in time as she learns to control the "incomings" of her secret sensory overload, Linda reflects on her relationships with her great-uncle Baby Harper Burch--a gay cross-dresser she loved dearly--as well as her acerbic grandmother and her unsympathetic mother. But secrets abound, and only when tragedy strikes does Linda come to understand her identity.
Random House. 285 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781400069088

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong's bone is the outsider's plight, and her pen is a scalpel, laying perfect words down along that nerve until even the happiest reader understands what it means to forever stand apart from your family and the larger society you inhabit. ... Bitter's end is neither bitter nor sweet, but the perfect combination of both: bittersweet, a word requiring no italicized connotation." Diane Leach

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Where The Book of Salt had an ease and a lyrical flow, a special harmony of subject and style, Bitter in the Mouth labors harder and a little more evidently. Truong's lovely, poetic freshness and intellectual breadth remain powerfully evident, but her scenario delivers greater familiarity and less magic, especially in the closing chapters where complexity gives way to something more tidily resolved." Elsbeth Lindner

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If the book disappoints, it's where this mystery [at Linda's grandmother's deathbed] is revealed... This shouldn't hold readers back from picking up the book, but doesn't a great story deserve a great ending?" Beatriz Terrazas

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]here were several instances when I wanted to cry, ‘Wait, shouldn't I have known that already?' ... Though I had moments of doubt, I read on, carried forward by her characters and her strong prose." Maya Muir

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"[While the synesthesia is] a fascinating conceit and a bright riff on the power of language, reading it at length can grow wearing: ‘Hi. I can't talkcornchips for longgrapeNehi. I just needed a couplefriedokra of thingstomato from the storebrancereal.'" Joan Frank

Critical Summary

Although Bitter in the Mouth may not, ultimately, engage the reader as much as the lyrical Book of Salt, critics agreed that Truong's second novel is original, poetic, and compelling in its own right. Complex and layered, it is a coming-of-age tale about the search for identity, family, and human connection. Yet reviewers expressed reservations about the very parts that make the novel unique. While some thought the premise (synesthesia) clever, a few found Linda's dialogue labored, distracting, and self-conscious. Others felt that the revelation of Linda's past is contrived and comes too late in the narrative. Still, wrote the Miami Herald, "On a second encounter, even if less remarkable than the first, it's still a rare, refreshing palate--one to savor."