Book Club: Bitter in the Mouth Review
Since Stacy already posted the information from Goodreads here, I thought I’d go ahead with the review!
Monique Truong’s second novel, Bitter in the Mouth, is about Linda, a girl who has synesthesia, a rare disorder in which the sound of words trigger food tastes. The word “mother” tastes like chocolate milk and her own name, “Linda,” tastes like mint. The associations interestingly do not seem to have rhyme or reason as negative words can have positive tastes and vice versa. The novel describes her upbringing in a small town, the numerous letters she writes to her best friend Kelly, how she deals with her synesthesia (as it is difficult to process word meaning with all of the initial flavors bombarding the senses), her eccentric uncle, Baby Harper, and finally, the big reveal of the factors surrounding the difficulties in her childhood with her mother.
I found the book interesting as she would often narrate a sentence by saying “What (graham cracker) do (licorice) you (lollipop) want (meatball)?” so that we too were bombarded with the tastes and could not process the sentence either (especially because I was listening, I couldn’t go back and reread so I felt like I was Linda that much more). I kept wondering what words should taste like, based on sound or meaning, and wanted to link every new vocabulary word I learned with a taste. Reader Jennifer Ikeda was properly “bitter” and unhappy throughout the novel, mimicking the narrator’s mood (and also articulated the taste sensations in a slightly different tone than the words themselves-hard to do!).
What I found somewhat problematic was how she described the awfulness of her mother’s nightly dinners- varieties of the same chicken casserole baked with a can of Cream of Mushroom Soup-yet she had such a multitude of flavors for words. How had she tasted so much (that she could then identify each word with a separate flavor), when she was clearly limited in her gastronomic palate at home?
I also just never found myself rooting for Linda or reveling in the plot. The book is constructed somewhat strangely, which reinforces the “danger of keeping secrets” theme, but also kept me from really latching on to Linda. I thought the plot was a slow-paced one, and while the end reveal was interesting, it still did not make up for much of the book’s blandness.
In retrospect (after answering the Bitter in the Mouth discussion questions for LHJ), I did appreciate the literary academic-ness of the novel; if you are ready for an academic challenge and go in looking for themes and motifs, you may be more satisfied with the lack of loveable characters and the slow pace. As Stacy, Shannan and I all agreed, this is definitely a book club book, because even if you didn’t like the read, there is a LOT to talk about (and figure out).
Instead of a rating, I’ll let our podcast and discussion questions give the GitS opinion and let the commentary continue the reviews!
P.S. Find out more information on the audio recording at www.recordedbooks.com