Bitter in the Mouth, Monique Truong, Random House Inc, 2010, 282 pp
I was completely enchanted by Monique Truong's first novel, The Book of Salt. Of course, it was set in Paris, with a fictional Vietnamese immigrant who served as cook to Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. So tasty.
Bitter in the Mouth is set in the American south, but as I know from William Faulkner, the south can be another country to a northerner like me. In that area of the United States they have their own customs, including a finely honed talent for not noticing the most obvious matters when they don't fit the customs. Women who marry but don't have children, anyone who drinks too much, homosexuality, any other race than white, women who break the mold, are just a few of those matters of which one may not speak, except by way of gossip, alluding, or backstabbing remarks.
Linda grows up knowing she was adopted, knowing that her adopted mother does not love her, depending on her father and uncle for love, closeness and any happiness there is to be found. She is a character for a reader to admire: highly intelligent, a reader herself, in a love/hate relationship with words. She and her best friend Kelly have written letters to each other since grade school, even when they lived just a few houses apart. But Linda has auditory-gustatory synethesia, a "secret sense" that causes her to taste words, sometimes a blessing, often a curse.
Much happens in such a medium length novel. The writing made me feel respected and intelligent as a reader. I love that approbation from a novelist. The coming-of-age, the long slow process of learning about herself, the stratagems Linda adopts in order to survive, are all presented from Linda's viewpoint and revealed to the reader only as she gains understanding about her life and the people in it.
Monique Truong says she used To Kill A Mockingbird and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms as inspiration as she wrote Bitter in the Mouth. I'm glad I didn't know this before I read the book, but knowing it afterwards explains why I felt so much familiarity with her characters.
The end of the book, where Linda makes her peace with life, was a bit too melodramatic for me. a little too spelled out in terms of what she, and therefore the reader, realized. I would have preferred a few more rough edges remaining. But getting to that point surely made a satisfying and moving story.
(Bitter in the Mouth is available in hardcover, paperback and Google eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)