Book Club discussion: Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong
As part of the Ladies Home Journal Book Club, we continue our book club discussions this month (see here for all posts) today we are tackling those book club questions, and we’ll just say that they are insightful and really make you ponder your opinions, thoughts and perceptions of the book…
Shannan - The families are defined as those that are destined to be together. They are from all backgrounds with different qualities within each one. Adoption, heterosexual, homosexual She even got broken up with bc she couldn’t provide the “normal” family with her boyfriend.
Sarah - I think family, according to Bitter in the Mouth, is defined as those that are kind and accepting through it all. It is Linda’s great uncle and best friend Kelly that are her truest “family” in that they love her unconditionally, while her mother and grandmother judge her harshly. Especially because Linda is adopted under difficult circumstances, her definition of family is that much harder for her to “sense.”
Linda Hammerick begins her story with her great-uncle Harper because she believes that “a family narrative should begin with love.” How does her great-uncle, a.k.a. Baby Harper, help her to understand what it means to be loved?
Stacy - He has shown unconditional love to her. He made her feel valued and special.
Shannan - He is the only one who loved her for who she is and always wanted her to achieve what she has in her heart.
Linda’s “secret sense,” auditory-gustatory synesthesia, causes her to taste words. How does her unusual relationship with “the word” shape Linda’s personality and life? What other characters in the novel have a unique relationship to “the word”?
Shannan - It shaped who she was by making her choose what to say and hear. She took what she tasted and formed them to what her world could offer her. It was related to her memories too. Her friend and she wrote their letters to each other. Her grandmother, Iris, could only speak the truth. Her mother didn’t say much of anything to her.
According to Linda, “[w]e keep secrets to protect, but the ones most shielded—from shame, from judgment, from the slap in the face—are ourselves. We are selfish in our secret keeping and rarely altruistic. We act out of instinct and survival and only when we feel safest will we let our set of facts be known.” Consider the secrets that are kept in the novel and by whom. Do these instances prove Linda’s assertion or disprove it?
Stacy - They whole heartedly prove Linda’s point. See DeAnne. See Baby Harper. See Iris. See Thomas.
Shannan - Yes, see above…
Sarah - This is true for everyone except Linda’s best friend Kelly. She does not want to keep her own secret about being pregnant, but does so for her family’s sake, more than for her own. She would have kept her baby and allowed her secret to be shared with the world, had it not been for her family’s worry about “the slap in the face”.
Linda’s grandmother Iris is the “family truth teller.” What are the examples in the first half of the novel of Iris telling us the truth? Did you understand them to be “truths” or were they, in a way, hidden in plain sight?
Stacy - I think Iris was a selective truth teller. There were lots of secrets being kept. At the same time if Linda had been older, more discerning the truth may have been more evident than she realized.
Shannan - She told the truth that she wanted to tell to shock people, to hurt people’s feeling, to prove her point. Sometimes a truth teller isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Sarah - As Shannan says, sometimes a truth teller is helpful, but Iris told only half truths and damaged people more than helped them with her judgements embedded in the truths.
Linda Hammerick and Kelly Powell have been best friends since the age of seven. What did they have in common that brought them together?
Shannan - They were both different – Linda was Asian and Kelly was overweight. They both loved the written word, letters that it.
Sarah - One part of what kept them together, after their initial friendship, was their mutual secret of Kelly’s cousin’s sexual abuse of them. Both never told the truth until it was too late, but I think that both of their families did not teach them how to speak such truths. Their mutual anguish over the secrets they kept (later including Kelly’s secret preganancy and Linda’s synesthesia) allowed them both to have an outlet in each other.
“Fat is not fate.” This is one of the ways that Linda distinguishes herself from her best friend Kelly. What is fate then? What are the examples of fate in Bitter in the Mouth?
Stacy - Fate is something that unavoidably befalls a person. However, I believe that we have free will. We don’t have to let fate choose our destiny. To me, Linda is saying that Kelly chooses to be fat. A prime example of fate (and the girl’s desires to manipulate it) is evident as the girls decided their ‘fate’ in high school.
Shannan - Fate is fact. It is something that is happening. Kelly “chose” to be fat and could change. Linda couldn’t change her sensory of words.
Sarah - Fate is unavoidable. Uncle Harper is gay, Linda has synesthesia, Kelly is kind.
Author Monique Truong states that “while my first novel, The Book of Salt, features an unreliable narrator, Bitter in the Mouth is a novel that plays with the idea of the unreliable reader.” She goes on to say that “the first half of Bitter is constructed as an invitation to the reader to fill in the blanks.” What do you think Truong means by this? What were the blanks in Linda’s story,and how did you fill them in? Was your “fill in” based on the stories that Linda tells about her immediate family, your own life experiences, or perhaps on what you know about the author of the novel?
Stacy - Truong left many things up to us. I for one thought that Linda was white, and that Baby Harper was molesting her. I suppose I based this on my own life experience or experiences lived through others.
Shannan - Firstly, I loved that the novel was constructed in two parts that allowed us to know the person before knowing what exterior qualities she exhibited. I had no idea she was adopted let alone a different race. I too, thought Baby Harper was molesting her. Then after finishing the novel I understand why I thought that but disappointed that I perceive men that way. Why, when an uncle or man in the family loves a girl in the family, does it have to be sexual? Why can’t they love each other because God gave them each other to love?
Sarah - Interestingly I too perceived Linda as white and living with her birth family, but did not perceive Baby Harper as a potential molester. I too projected my own experiences onto Linda when filling in the blanks and so was a bit “slapped in the face” by her revelations of being both Asian and adopted. I liked the author’s manipulation of us into looking at our own assumptions, especially because of the themes of truth and secrets that play throughout the novel. Because I have not read The Book of Salt, I only used my own judgements to color the reader, but I know that when I read books by the same author, I’m always looking for connections, so I’m sure my perceptions would have been different had I read the author’s other work.
In the second half of the novel, Linda reveals a significant part of her life story to us. Did the revelation of this fact change the way that you understand her and her story? Did you go back and re-read the first half of the novel? If yes, what did you “see” that you did not see upon the first reading?
Stacy - I did not, in fact, re-read the first half of the book.
Shannan - I didn’t re-read the first half but did spend some time thinking about the book and wondering why I thought things in the beginning of the book that proved to be false after reading the second half of the book. The news and life sure do influence the way we perceive things.
Sarah - I was listening to the novel, so I was not going to re-listen to the CDs but definitely anticipated more “reveals” rather than taking everything at face value.
Consider your first impression of Linda. Although her synesthesia is a rare neurological condition, were there still ways in which you found yourself relating to her sense (pun intended) of being different and disconnected from her family and from the other children in Boiling Springs?
Stacy - I think it’s a universal knowledge that we all feel different and disconnected from our family, at least at times.
Shannan - We are at a time now where people are celebrating the differences we have that make us unique. Of course, we all feel different from our friends and family no matter how much we have in common with them. That is what makes us unique. Does it make you feel lonely sometimes? Yes.
Sarah - I think everyone feels like an outsider at some point in their lives. Having moved often growing up, I related to Linda’s impression of being the “new kid” who did not have a history with the town. I also think all kids think their parents should realize more about what is going on in their kids’ lives-whether it be the trouble other teenagers are getting into or how to do the homework assigned. As kids, we have this sense that parents should know it all and they let us down when they do not see what we see or know more than we do.
What if the author had switched the order of how she told you Linda’s story? In other words, what if “Revelation” came before “Confession,” and you were presented with the opportunity to identify and to relate to Linda based on her “outer” difference first, as opposed to her “internal” difference. Consider how your own identification with Linda would have been different. Would it have been lessened or heightened or unaffected?
Shannan - I think I would have related better to Linda as I would have known her story of how she was adopted and a different race from her family. Although I wouldn’t change the order of the book if I could. I loved reading it that way. However, I would have thought more of DeAnne knowing what her husband felt about another woman. I wouldn’t have thought things about Baby Harper and maybe wouldn’t have hated Iris so much.
Sarah - I think I too would have felt more sympathy for DeAnne and would have liked watching the family drama unfold, rather than not realize what was happening until it was over. I think I also would have rooted for Linda more as an underdog, rather than my initial perception of her as a whiner.
Linda tells us that her first memory was a word that triggered a bitter taste. What word do you think it was and who spoke it? What are the clues that lead you to the word?
Stacy - I am assuming it was her father or DeAnne, but I have no idea what the word was. Hate? Adulterer?
Shannan - I keep thinking that I need to re-read the bitter words and try to piece it together. Her real parents?
Sarah - I think her first memory was probably the night of the fire in the trailer when her birth mother put her outside of harm’s way as she said at one point that she vaguely remembered someone saying something to her in her native tongue, as if in a dream. Perhaps right before this, her birth father said something cruel to her birth mother (like “adulterer” or “bitch”), which triggered the fire/murder that occurred as a result.
Is Linda Hammerick a southerner? Is Bitter in the Mouth a southern novel? Why or why not?
Stacy - Southern is as southern does.
Shannan - Linda is a southerner. Linda came from a southern family and when you are born into a southern family, you can run (to NY) but you can’t hide.
Sarah - I think that for me, Baby Harper’s eccentricies were much like those in The Garden of Good and Evil which made the novel, in the end, a Southern one. Linda herself is a Southerner by her upbringing and her adopted family which is a Southern bred family-both well-heeled and crazy!