- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0618304002
- ISBN-13: 978-0618304004
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 82 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,184,936 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Book of Salt: A Novel
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From Publishers Weekly
A mesmerizing narrative voice, an insider's view of a fabled literary household and the slow revelation of heartbreaking secrets contribute to the visceral impact of this first novel. From a few lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Truong reimagines the Vietnamese cook who was hired by the famous residents at 27 rue de Fleurus. Bonh, as he calls himself, is an exile from his homeland, where he was denounced because of a homosexual relationship and banished by his brutal father. After three years at sea, Bonh ends up in Paris, where he answers Toklas's ad ("Two American ladies wish...") and enters the household of Gertrude Stein. The story begins in 1934 when the women he calls "my Mesdames" are about to tour America, and Bnh fears he'll be cast adrift once again. Flashbacks reveal his loneliness and guilt, his doomed love affairs (he enjoys a brief tryst with Ho Chi Minh, whom he knows only as "the man on the bridge") and his sadness at having abandoned his mother and his native land. The tone throughout is poignant, lightened by Bnh's subversive wit; for all his bitterness and resentment, he is a captivating narrator, as adept at describing Stein's literary salon as the contents of Toklas's kitchen. If Truong sometimes stretches the range of Bonh's understanding and powers of observation, interpreting even the thoughts of Stein herself, the narrative rings with emotional authenticity. Truong's supple prose is permeated with sensual detail, reminiscent of A Debt to Pleasure in its evocation of the erotic possibilities of food. But it is her intuitive understanding of the condition of exile-"the pure, sea salt sadness of the outcast"-that infuses her novel with richness and beauty.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Drawing inspiration from a fleeting reference in the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954) to two "Indochinese" men who at one point cooked for Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Truong has concocted a delectable fictional memoir. Faced with the decision about whether to accompany Stein and Toklas to America, return to Vietnam, or remain in France, Binh, the Vietnamese cook who has labored for the unconventional ladies he has dubbed "The Steins," for about five years, reflects back on his troubled life and times. Interspersing his own story with that of his illustrious employers, Binh meanders back and forth through time, recounting his youthful misadventures in Vietnam, his time toiling as a galley hand aboard a sailing vessel, and his years spent cooking for the Steins and indulging in the joys and perils of the seamier side of Parisian nightlife. Using salt as a metaphor for "food, sweat, tears and the sea," and interweaving the narrative with suggestions of ingredients, recipes, and exotic dishes, Truong provides a savory debut novel of unexpected depth and emotion. Margaret Flanagan
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Top customer reviews
This is a complex novel, set both in the Paris home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkiss and in French colonial Vietnam. It is drawn together by Binh, the 'Asian Cook' of the Stein/Tolkiss household, who is alienated from both the Vietnam in which he grew up and in the France in which he lives later. It draws on Paris in the 30's and the vanities and prejudices of the American community there, the joys of food, Vietnamese independence, disfunctional families, and homosexuality. Not all of these topics would normally appeal to me, but they are presented in such a beautifully written way that I was quite enchanted.
This book is full of allusions and metaphors, many of which escaped me. For example, much was made of a character met on a bridge. Apparently this was Hi Chi Minh, referred to by his original name. Clearly he was very important, but I didn't know his significance until I read a discussion by the author.
In fairness, although I loved the book, not all my fellow book club members enjoyed it. I think they found the plot too complex and the metaphors too obscure. But I would strongly recommended this book to anyone who likes to be challenged, and to move into new areas.