A good bad book

The premise behind Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt is high concept but appealing: the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Indochinese cook. There's a smart an elegant turn, too: by making him gay, Truong explores gay and lesbian life in 1920's Paris without having to work through a judgmental narrator. A good friend who reads a lot of wonderful contemporary literature raved about it and she and I have a lot of mutual friends, so I was excited to read it.

Much about it was so terrific and moving, but even I, Woolf scholar though I be, can only take so much dreamlike, plotless prose.

The premise is a good one. An Binh, after many years in Paris, receives a letter from his brother in Saigon. Their abusive father is dying; come home. The letter is salty: is it the salt of the sea? of tears? of cooking? There is a beautiful passage on types of salt and how they might help Binh figure out what he owes to a painful past.

But, while some of the stuff on Stein and Toklas is funny—about daily feasts of liver for the poodles—whenever Truong moves to make them into characters, the note is a little off: we always already know too much and too little about them, so while they work as background figures, they do not, and cannot, give the novel emotional weight. The real problem, however, is the back-story of his mother’s marriage as a child bride and the extramarital love affair that lead to his birth, the fourth and final son. The mother never emerges as a character with any interiority, but as the novel goes on, we spend more and more time in her story. Because we don’t know her mind, but we know all kinds of very intimate facts about here, something in the scale of the book is off. What a disappointment.