Bitter in the Mouth: A Novel Paperback – Aug 9 2011
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“A coming-of-age tale with a magical ferocity that recalls Doctorow and Nabokov.”—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark & Termite
“A beautifully written, complex story of self-discovery.”—The Boston Globe
“Truong explores—and explodes—[her characters’] secrets at a captivating pace. . . . Reminiscent of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A searing exploration of intimacy and enmity, language, betrayal, and silence, Bitter in the Mouth is as dazzling as it is deeply emotional. It also has the best twist in its tail—ever.”—Parade
About the Author
Monique Truong was born in Saigon and currently lives in New York City. Her first novel, The Book of Salt, was a New York Times Notable Book. It won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the 7th Annual Asian American Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Britain’s Guardian First Book Award. She is the recipient of the PEN American Robert Bingham Fellowship, and was awarded the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton for 2007-2008.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Author Monique Truong structures the story in such a way that it evokes the sense of misplacement and misconstruction that pervades Linda's view of her life as distorting overlaps. Truong divides her novel in two parts. In the first part, Linda covers mostly her childhood--her relationships with her parents, her great-uncle Harper and with Kelly, her best friend. She also describes her first crush, her loss of innocence and the disappointment every child comes to feel when she discovers that the adults in her life are full of flaws and warts. To the reader, Linda Hamerick is an all American girl. Nothing in the minutiae of Linda's narrative foreshadows the surprise Truong drops on the readers at the closing of the first part of her novel. It is then that readers must dismiss any assumptions they might have made about the main character and read on the second part of the book through a different lens.
I enjoy reading both commercial and literary works. "Bitter in the Mouth" is definitely a literary effort. Truong experiments with structure and voice. Linda's revelations of her life and family are made in bits and pieces and in a nonlinear manner. As I encountered them, I felt like I was shuffling pieces of a puzzle. Linda's special condition and her thoughts on childhood legends, however, were more of a distraction to me than contributions to her story. The more I read about them, the more I felt like I wanted to strip the storyline to its bare bones: This book is about (1) Linda's relationship (or lack of it) with her mother, (2) Harper's secret life, (3) Linda's friendship with Kelly and (4) DeAnn and Thomas's marriage
In the end, it was hard to care for Linda. I found her voice too detached. By the time the resolution of the story approaches, her narration becomes clinical and monotonous. There are some gems in "Bitter in the Mouth," however--such as the morning of Thomas's funeral when DeAnn walks into the room with her dress unzipped--, where Truong proves she has an eye for capturing beauty and meaning in what could have been banal details. Reading "Bitter in the Mouth" requires patience and a bit of an open mind toward Truong's choices in story structure and narrative style. Those who like literary experimentation will appreciate this novel.
I will not spoil this book for future readers. However, if you have ever felt or been different, worked with people who were different, then this rare novel is a `must read.' It is written with unusual sensitivity and insight. It is filled with music and color, as well as the importance of love, understanding and acceptance.
The prose is exquisite. Truong's writing demonstrates that special union that only a few writers possess [in my opinion]. This is Linda and her great-uncle Harper's story, as well as how people may find their soul mates within a family. Actually, it is much more than this. Before I knew it, I was enmeshed in their lives. I felt every hurt, as well as any triumph.
If one reads carefully, and I am a most deliberate reader, one will find that most delicate thread that laces people, family and friends together. There is a special thread for it holds mysteries, as well as firms those essential bonds we all form.
`We both liked music because it was a river where we stripped down, jumped in, and flailed our arms around each other. It was 1975 then, and the water everywhere around us was glittery with disco lights. My great-uncle Harper and I though, danced to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino. We twisted, mashed- potatoed, and winked at each other when we opened our eyes. My great-uncle Harper was my first love. I was seven years old. In his company, I laughed out loud.' This passage is on the very first page. It said to me, `Come on in. Do join us. You're in for a treat!' I joined Linda and her truly great-uncle Harper and found myself delightfully lost in this book.
Linda has a condition known as synesthesia. Some words produce certain tastes in Linda's mouth. I had no idea that this condition existed, but allow me to share that Linda is in extremely good company
As I've stated earlier, I really don't want to give anything away. I think that readers should come to a book like this as `fresh' as possible. I will share that Linda and her father, Thomas, have an extremely close relationship. One senses their love and understanding of one another. Read carefully about when `Mom' becomes DeAnne.
Linda and Kelly share a wonderfully enriching friendship. This friendship is an enduring one. I loved their letter writing, their support of one another.
This is a most compassionate look at family. One might even look at this as a different `take' on what family is, should be and/or capable of being. It is a memorable, meditative book - one that stirred my memories.
`Bitter in the Mouth' may not be for everyone, but it certainly is a book for me. I loved every minute of it.
It may [perhaps not] be helpful to know that I taught my mother how to do `the twist.' My father and I sang many duets - one was `You Belong To Me.' Also, I like Kandinsky, as well as absolutely love Scriabin.
Did I mention that I loved this book?
The use of synesthesia as an element of the protagonist's nature creates the ability for some interesting analogies and symbolism. But the way in which it's incorporated into the writing is extremely distracting. Moreover, it seems unnecessary. The issues with which the protagonist struggles have nothing to do with her synesthesia, and her synesthesia adds nothing to her or our understanding of her situation or her reaction to it. Ultimately, while this trope provided the opportunity for a fascinating set-piece about various artists with unusual perceptual challenges, it seemed like more of a gimmick than anything.
The characters in this book are potentially very interesting, but none of them is really fleshed out into a person about whom one really cares. Similarly, many of the characters have endured difficult, and sometimes, traumatic experiences, yet none of them really moved me as I would have expected or wanted to be moved.
Ultimately, I was not particularly engaged in this novel, and I find that result to be particularly disappointing in light of the obvious talent possessed by the author. I think with more time and better editing, she will learn to thin down her plotlines and casts of characters, so as to create a story and people that truly move a reader. "Bitter in the Mouth" contains enough brilliant and startling passages to demonstrate that Monique Truong has the capacity to write a great novel; she just needs to learn how to sustain the magic of many of her individual sentences throughout an entire book
Monique Truong represents her condition by marrying tastes with words; for example, "I thought youcannedgreenbeans knewpeanut butter." Or "Lindamint. Stopcannedcorn it!" While the narrative can become a little cloying with this consistent device, it does serve to show the reader how estranged Linda is from her family...and indeed, just about everyone else in her life.
Except for her colorful great-uncle, Baby Harper. Baby Harper harbors his own secrets - he, too, is not in sync with their rural North Carolina hometown - and he has a particularly strong bond with his grand-niece, whom he accepts wholeheartedly.
There are several twists and turns in this sometimes elegiac book, and I would not want to provide unnecessary spoilers. The book is well worth reading for many reasons; the first is that it provides the only in-depth look of synesthesia I recall in my many years of reading. For example, Linda says, "I sometimes would crave a word. For me, there was, and still is, an appreciable distinction between hearing the word said and saying it for myself, though both would produce the same incomings. It was the difference between being served a good meal and having to cook one for myself."
Another reason: Bitter In The Mouth is a wonderful examination of loneliness and yearning for love, as in this differentiation between the missing and the void: "The void was the person, place or thing that was never there in the first place. The missing existed but was no longer present. One was theoretical loss. The other was actual. Which was worse?" Both the missing and the void are explored in their various manifestations.
At times, the intrusions of North Carolina history halt the forward progression of the novel. And the ending is a little too wrapped up. Yet it is still a fascinating look at the experience of being an outsider within a dysfunctional family: an acerbic and infantilizing grandmother, a "respectable" father, a distant mother in the honeyed south.
It centers on Linda Hammerick, who has a burdensome condition, apparently called synesthesia, she "tastes" words. So quite ordinary words, her family's, friends', and boyfriends' names, for example, remind her of orange sherbet and parsnips; her own name is mint-flavored.
What we get in the first part of the book, "Confession," is, to me, a pretty standard coming of age tale, though, to be sure, set in a small Southern town, which can be assumed to be somewhat different from, say, a small New England town. At any rate, as Linda has grown up in Boiling Springs, she has always felt herself to be different. Her early school days, up through high school, are a trial, and, in addition, she's got the additional burden of this odd condition. But she dances and dines out with her eccentric uncle Baby Harper, wrestles with her outspoken grandmother Iris; loves her father Thomas, finds her mother, DeAnne difficult, and is best friends forever with Kelly. Finally, she goes away to do undergraduate work at Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut, and to study law at New York's Columbia University; she then settles in New York. Truong writes with brevity and wit, she seems to have a lovely light touch on what makes the South so different, and she's often a pleasure to read, yet I was a bit disappointed in this first section. In the first place, until proven otherwise, I will continue to believe that all American/Canadian high schools are much the same and I don't feel the need to read one more book about them. In the second place, dialog in this book is made difficult to read by Linda's condition. How do you like "There's a highgreenLifesaverswaycanned pears out of this hole-hushpuppies, Lindamint," as a sentence of dialog? (Sorry, but I am unable to use the italics in the original). But every sentence is like that. I don't like trying to read that, and am generally not willing to work so hard at reading a book, unless I really really like it.
In the second section, "Revelation," we get more of Linda's backstory, and she finally becomes more interesting, and more sympathetic, to me, but, as the old working class expression goes, by now, it's a day late and a dollar short. And no way was I going to struggle through the first part of the book again.
Still, in her brief career, Truong has won many awards. BOOK OF SALT was a "New York Times" Notable Book. It won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the Seventh Annual Asian American Literary Award. It was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Britain's Guardian First Book Award. She is the recipient of the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship, and was awarded the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton for 2007-08. I expect we'll hear more from the author, and it will be high-quality work, which will, I hope, not be so difficult to struggle through. Meanwhile, an extra star for local interest.