Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

Time for me had always been measured in terms of the rising sun, its setting sister, and the dependable cycle of the moon. But at sea, I learned that time can also be measured in terms of water, in terms of the distance traveled while drifting on it. When measured in this way, nearer and farther are the path of time's movement, not continuously forward along a fast straight line. When measured in this way, time loops and curlicues, and at any given moment it can spiral me away and then bring me rushing home again.
Monique Truong's The Book of Salt is the story of Binh, a chef who travels from Vietnam to Paris where he becomes Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas' cook. It's told from Binh's perspective and weaves between his life in Vietnam, his time at sea, and his new life in France. The writing vacillates between gorgeous and overwrought; some sentences are perfect, but others are so packed with adjectives and adverbs that they trigger some serious eye rolls.

One of the central sadnesses of the books is Binh's intense loneliness. He is a servant in a home where he barely speaks the language, alone in a city that rushes around him in yet another language, and he's gay at a time where there don't even seem to be words to describe such a thing. Several passages in the book are directed at other people-- his mother (who has died), his lover (who has left)--and they make his isolation that much more palpable.

I was a little disappointed that Stein didn't feature more prominently. I'm fascinated with her, and every time she appears in a novel, it's always as a secondary caricature of herself. This book was no exception; Stein is dictatorial, aloof, and uninterested in the goings on in the kitchen. There are little windows into her life: She writes in illegible longhand and Toklas spends hours typing up her work; before a return to the States Stein agonizes over whether honeydew and oysters will be available before her speaking engagements, and Toklas writes to each hotel in turn to reassure her that they will. Their relationship, even though it appears only in small vignettes is touching and left me wanting more.

I enjoyed this one less than I thought I would. It had many of the pieces I usually love: Paris, food, lilting prose, but they didn't quite fit together for me. Maybe with some editing from Stein it would have held up a little better.

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