BITTER IN THE MOUTH by Monique Truong

Book Quote:

“The difference between a fact and a secret was the slithery phrase: ‘Don’t tell anyone.’ ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 1, 2010)

Early on in Monique Truong’s powerful new novel, Bitter in the Mouth, the narrator, Linda Hammerick, realizes her family is keeping secrets from her. “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two. Those were the last words that my grandmother ever said to me,” Linda recalls. It will take many more years before Linda can discover what those secrets are but before then she must navigate a strained childhood in the small town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina.

As Truong reveals slowly over the course of the novel, Linda is different from the residents of Boiling Springs in many ways but there’s one specific condition that we find out about right away: Linda suffers from synesthesia. This is a neurological condition where different senses can overlap. Linda suffers from a specific one where spoken words coming at her yield various taste sensations in her mouth. For example, she forever associates her teen crush with the taste of orange sherbet. Needless to say, this is a crushing disability made worse by the fact that nobody in town—including her own parents—can really comprehend what’s wrong. “Many of the words that I heard or had to say aloud brought with them a taste—unique, consistent, and most often unrelated to the meaning of the word that had sent the taste rolling into my mouth,” Linda recalls, “On my report cards, my teachers conveyed this undetected fact to my parents as ‘your daughter’s unwillingness to pay attention in class.’”

As Linda works her way through school, she manages her “incomings” with other strong tastes—namely cigarettes and alcohol. By the time she graduates from Boiling Springs High School, she is close to smoking a pack a day.

Despite the synesthesia, Linda’s giftedness surfaces anyway and she is easily the brightest kid in school—the Brain. At school she has a best friend, Kelly, who is herself struggling with a poor self-image and later, an unplanned pregnancy.

Linda’s relationship with her family is strained. Her mother, DeAnne, is especially distant and it isn’t very clear until the end why she is so. When Linda tragically is raped by a local landscaper, she is horrified that the incident doesn’t really register with her mother. It is this seemingly chilling indifference that forever turns Linda off her home and family. The only family member she is very close to is her granduncle, Harper Evans Burch, known to the family as Baby Harper. In fact, it is Baby Harper who offers Linda the shoulder she needs when she goes through life’s many ups and downs.

Unmoored by slowly decaying family ties, Linda jumps at the first chance she gets to leave home. Like her father, Thomas Hammerick, she goes to Yale and studies law. “I hadn’t thought about my refusal to return to Boiling Springs as a habit, but it was. Like biting my fingernails or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, the act of not returning home had an ameliorative effect on my psyche,” Linda says. “It had begun with the idea, new and fizzy in my eighteen-year-old brain, that family was a choice and not fate. If that was true, then I chose not to have a family.” Soon Linda is settled in New York City working at a law practice, on her way to becoming junior partner, until tragedy strikes again.

She eventually returns to Boiling Springs and learns of the secrets from DeAnne. As much as this sounds like the stuff of melodrama, it is not. Monique Truong, whose debut was the sensational The Book of Salt, does a wonderful follow-up job with Bitter in the Mouth. Her writing is simply superb and she explores the weightiest of themes with ease.

The only problem with her new novel is that while the story might be completely different, the ground she covers here is not. The themes she explores in The Book of Salt are here again. This is not to imply that it diminishes Bitter in the Mouth as a novel in any way—but instead to say that one wishes the immensely talented Truong had taken some more risks and colored a little outside the lines. Evaluated by itself, Bitter in the Mouth is fantastic. But taken together with The Book of Salt, you don’t see much growth in the author’s range. Despite this minor quibble, it’s plenty evident that Monique Truong is extremely talented and her latest novel is an absolute delight.

One final thought about the book has not much to do with the book itself but with the timing of its release. Anybody who has been paying any kind of attention in the literary world is well aware of the release of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on September 1. It’s just unfortunate that Bitter in the Mouth will be released exactly at this time. The immensely able Truong deserves loads more attention than she has received so far and the timing of this book’s release will, unfortunately, not help.

Bitter in the Mouth is an impressive feat especially given that her brilliant debut made it such a difficult act to follow. With her latest novel, Truong conclusively proves she’s no one-hit wonder.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 59 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (August 31, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Monique Truong
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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September 1, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, Reading Guide

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