"Bitter in the Mouth" is a new novel from Monique Truong, whose first novelThe Book of Salt: A Novel, was a bestselling, raved-about by the critics, debut. It is set in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, a small southern town that is close enough to the area of Wilmington, where I live, that my local newspaper gives us its news, too. This makes it of extra interest to this reader, who has lived in this vicinity for more than five years.
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.