Bitter in the Mouth is a brilliant, virtuosic novel about a young woman’s search for identity and the true meaning of family from the author of The Sweetest Fruits
“What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two” are the prophetic last words that Linda Hammerick’s grandmother says to her. Growing up in small-town North Carolina in the 1970s and ’80s, Linda already knows that she is profoundly different from everyone else, including the members of her own family. She can “taste” words. In this and in other ways, her body is a mystery to her. Linda’s awkward girlhood is nonetheless enlivened and emboldened by her dancing great-uncle Harper, and Kelly, her letter-writing best friend. Linda makes her way north to college and then to New York City, trying her best to leave her past behind her like “a pair of shoes that no longer fit.” But when a family tragedy compels her to return home, Linda uncovers the startling secrets of her past. Monique Truong’s acclaimed novel questions our assumptions about what it means to be a family and to be a friend, to be foreign and to be familiar, to be connected to and disconnected from our bodies, our histories, ourselves.
Linda Hammerick has a special yet burdensome gift--she experiences words as tastes. Linda's boyfriends' names, for example, remind her of orange sherbet and parsnips; her own name is mint-flavored. Depending on the speaker, listening, for Linda, can be delicious or distasteful. In the first part of the book, Linda interacts with her family: she dances with her eccentric uncle Baby Harper, whose sing-song voice limits her "tasting his words"; she faced off with her acerbic grandmother, Iris; deals with her adored father, Thomas, and her unsympathetic mother, Deanne, whose infatuation with a neighborhood boy leaves Linda vulnerable to his predatory advances. Woven into Linda's story is the history of her home state, North Carolina slaveholding days, the first airplane flight, and local Indian lore. But when a sudden tragedy brings Linda back home from New York City, she finds answers to a life that has been made up of half-finished sentences, as the secret of her origins and the clandestine histories of those around her are revealed one by one. Truong's (Book of Salt) mesmerizing prose beautifully captures Linda's taste-saturated world, and her portrait of a broken family's secretive pockets and genuine moments of connection is affecting.