The follow-up to Monique Truong’s stunning first novel, The Book of Salt, proves the best-selling author has not only staying power, but also a wealth of interests and experiences upon which to draw. Whereas her debut explored the lives of historical figures in 1930s Paris, her sophomore work, Bitter in the Mouth, brings readers into a small and colorful North Carolina town in the 1970s and ’80s.
The novel tells the story of Linda Hammerick, an introspective and often wickedly funny woman who looks back on her childhood, the friends and family she loved—her bad-girl best friend, her outlandish gay uncle—and those who never quite understood her, including her own mother. Linda’s outsider status is, in part, due to her rare and secret gift: an ability to taste sounds, or synesthesia. “Incomings,” as Linda calls them, are distinct tastes she perceives upon hearing words. The word “you” tastes of canned green beans, for example, the word “home” of Pepsi. And as a result, Linda’s way of interacting with the world around her is tempered by sensory perceptions she can neither harness nor explain.
Midway through the story, Linda reveals another secret that further explains the woman she’s become and her increasing need to learn more about her origins. Such a revelation could come off as gimmicky. But in Truong’s capable hands, it simply adds to Linda’s richness of character, mimicking, in a way, the flavorful words she experiences more fully than others.
At times Bitter in the Mouth feels a bit slow—the plot meanders and Linda’s cyclical take on her own story often feels unnecessarily circuitous. But such flaws are easily masked by Truong’s superb descriptions and intimate character portraits. We’ve never been to Boiling Springs, North Carolina, but we feel we have been. We aren’t afflicted with Linda’s neurological disorder, but we taste its power.