Bitter in the Mouth

( 68 )

Overview

From Monique Truong, the bestselling and award-winning author of The Book of Salt, comes a brilliant, mesmerizing, beautifully written novel about a young woman’s search for identity and family, as she uncovers the secrets of her past and of history.
 
Growing up in the small town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in the 70’s and 80’s, Linda believes that she is profoundly different from everyone else, including the members of her own ...
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Bitter in the Mouth

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Overview

From Monique Truong, the bestselling and award-winning author of The Book of Salt, comes a brilliant, mesmerizing, beautifully written novel about a young woman’s search for identity and family, as she uncovers the secrets of her past and of history.
 
Growing up in the small town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in the 70’s and 80’s, Linda believes that she is profoundly different from everyone else, including the members of her own family. “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two” are the cruel, mysterious last words that Linda’s grandmother ever says to her.

Now in her thirties, Linda looks back at her past when she navigated her way through life with the help of her great-uncle Harper, who loves her and loves to dance, and her best friend Kelly, with whom Linda exchanges almost daily letters. The truth about my family was that we disappointed one another. When I heard the word “disappoint,” I tasted toast, slightly burnt.

For as long as she can remember, Linda has experienced a secret sense—she can “taste” words, which have the power to disrupt, dismay, or delight. She falls for names and what they evoke: Canned peaches. Dill. Orange sherbet. Parsnip (to her great regret). But with crushes comes awareness. As with all bodies, Linda’s is a mystery to her, in this and in other ways. Even as Linda makes her way north to Yale and New York City, she still does not know the truth about her past.
 
Then, when a personal tragedy compels Linda to return to Boiling Springs, she gets to know a mother she never knew and uncovers a startling story of a life, a family. Revelation is when God tells us the truth. Confession is when we tell it to him.

This astonishing novel questions many assumptions—about what it means to be a family and to be a friend, to be foreign and to be familiar, to be connected and to be disconnected—from others and from the past, our bodies, our histories, and ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A deeply compassionate and artfully crafted novel.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard advises would-be writers to find their bone, the thing that drives them to write….Monique Truong’s bone is the outsider’s plight, and her pen is a scalpel, laying perfect words down along that nerve until even the happiest reader understands what it means to forever stand apart from your family and the larger society you inhabit.”
--Los Angeles Times
 
“Fast-moving and beautifully strange….[Linda’s] tasting words…quickly becomes second nature and eventually, metaphorical poetry.  It has a poignancy that sneaks up on you, just like Truong’s entire clever tale.”
­­--Time Out New York
 
“A flavorful, haunting journey….Truong is a powerful writer.”
--The Oregonian
 
“Truong’s mesmerizing prose beautifully captures [the heroine’s] taste-saturated world, and her portrait of a broken family’s secretive pockets and genuine moments of connection is affecting.”
Publishers Weekly (“Pick of the Week”, starred review)
 
“Absorbing . . . Truong is a gifted storyteller, and in this quietly powerful novel she has created a compelling and unique character.”
Booklist (starred review)

"Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth, every word a taste, is a revelation of wit and heart and stunning talent. Truong invents Americana for a new America: from Great Uncle Harper to Dr Pepper and the Wright Brothers, she shades her classic coming of age tale with a magical ferocity that recalls Doctorow and Nabokov. Bitter in the Mouth is a soulful hymn to the hands we fashion with the cards we’re dealt."
—Jayne Anne Phillips

"Be prepared for a full range of tastes of life in Bitter in the Mouth: friendship, loyalty, love, family, and above all, the mysteries at every corner of one’s history that make us who we are. Monique Truong is a great observer and a beautiful writer."
—Yiyun Li

"Monique Truong creates a world so subtle, mysterious, moving and sensory that it heightens our consciousness of those qualities in our own.  Bitter in the Mouth is the rare novel that makes one life story unique and universal at the same time."
—Gloria Steinem

Roy Hoffman
…this novel seems reminiscent of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with its hurt souls nursing private truths and yearning for love. "One silence had led to another, and eventually the silences became the life preservers dotting the dangerous ocean between them," Linda says of one of the secrets held fast by the novel's richly drawn characters. Truong explores—and explodes—these secrets at a captivating pace…a moving investigation of invented families and small-town subterfuge, a search for self heightened by the legacy of Vietnam and the flavors of language.
—The New York Times
Yvonne Zipp
…terrific…After an opening that feels like pure Southern Gothic, complete with an emotionally withholding mom and a gay great-uncle who could be channeling Tennessee Williams, Truong wields her narrative like a quarterstaff, knocking readers' expectations right out from under them.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400069088
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/31/2010
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Monique Truong
Monique Truong was born in Saigon and currently lives in New York City. Her first novel, The Book of Salt, was a New York Times Notable Book. It won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the 7th Annual Asian American Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Britain’s Guardian First Book Award. She is the recipient of the PEN American Robert Bingham Fellowship, and was awarded the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton for 2007-2008.

Good To Know

in our interview, Truong shared some fun facts about herself with us:

"I can't drive. I took the written test when I was 16 and passed (of course, I passed; I was a geek and studied). I took the driving test twice when I was in high school and failed miserably both times. I'm mobility-challenged in other ways as well. I can't ride a bike, roller skate, ice skate, or rollerblade. I can walk (short distances) and am very proficient at taking public transportations of all kinds."

"I learned how to cook by watching my mother (who is an amazing cook) and from reading cookbooks. When my family first came to the U.S. as refugees in 1975, we lived in a very small town in North Carolina. I had very few friends (OK, I had one), and I spent a great deal of time reading books of all kinds. I began to read cookbooks because I had this idea that if I ate American food I would become more American (and have more friends). I was six years old and this plan made sense to me. I needed to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies, devil's food cake, meatloaf, etc. During my elementary school years, I read The Betty Crocker Cookbook from cover to cover, even those pages about how to set a festive table (the Mexican theme intrigued me)."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Monique T. D. Truong; Monique Thuy-Dung Truong
    2. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 13, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      Saigon, South Vietnam
    1. Education:
      B.A. in Literature, Yale University, 1990; J.D., Columbia University School of Law, 1995

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I fell in love with my great-uncle Harper because he taught me how to dance. He said that rhythm was allowing yourself to feel your blood coursing through you. He told me to close my eyes and forget the rest of my body. I did, and we bopped our nonexistent selves up and down and side to side. He liked me because I was a quiet child. He showed me photographs of himself as a boy. He referred to himself in the third person. This here is Harper Evan Burch, he would say. The boy in those photographs was also a quiet child. I could tell from the way that his arms were always flat by his side, never akimbo or raised high to the North Carolina sky. We were both compact, always folding ourselves into smaller pieces. We both liked music because it was a river where we stripped down, jumped in, and flailed our arms around. It was 1975 then, and the water everywhere around us was glittery with disco lights. My great-uncle Harper and I, though, danced to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino. We twisted, mashed- potatoed, and winked at each other whenever we opened our eyes. My great-uncle Harper was my first love. I was seven years old. In his company, I laughed out loud.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I have tried to find him in the male bodies that I lie next to and that I see him now only when I turn off the lights. His bow tie undone, hanging around his shirt collar-modest isosceles triangles, considering the fashion at the time, his pants cuffed and creased, his graying hair cut the same as when he was a boy, a wedge of it hanging over one eye, the other one a blue lake dappled by the sun.

My great-uncle Harper wasn't where I thought I would begin, but a family narrative should begin with love. Because he was my first love I was spared the saddest experience in most people's lives. My first love and my first heartbreak were dealt by different pairs of hands. I was lucky. My memories of the two sensations, one of my heart filling and one of it emptying, were divided and lodged in separate bodies. I can still recall the feeling that came over me when my great-uncle Harper first placed the record needle onto a spinning 45. It happened right away. I felt that everything deep within my body was rising to the surface, that my skin was growing thin, that I would come apart. If this sounds painful, it wasn't. It was what love did to my body, which was to transform it. I would come apart like a fireworks display, a burst of light that would grow larger and glow, and make the person below me say, "Ah!" I remembered saying my great-uncle's name aloud. This memory of my first love was then safe from all that was to come.

I'll tell you the easy things first. I'll use simple sentences. So factual and flat, these statements will land in between us like playing cards on a table: My name is Linda Hammerick. I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. My parents were Thomas and DeAnne. My best friend was named Kelly. I was my father's tomboy. I was my mother's baton twirler. I was my high school's valedictorian. I went far away for college and law school. I live now in New York City. I miss my great-uncle Harper.

But once these cards have been thrown down, there are bound to be distorting overlaps, the head of the Queen of Spades on the body of the King of Clubs, the Joker's bowed legs beneath a field of hearts: I grew up in (Thomas and Kelly). My parents were (valedictorian and baton twirler). My best friend was named (Harper). I was my father's (New York City). I was my mother's (college and law school). I was my high school's (tomboy). I went far away for (Thomas and DeAnne). I live now in (Boiling Springs). I miss (Linda Hammerick). The only way to sort out the truth is to pick up the cards again, slowly, examining each one.

My grandmother Iris Burch Whatley died on February 14, 1987. She had never told a lie, and the fear of that had kept our family, a shrinking brood, together. As her health began to fail, we began to show our true colors. When she passed away, we bloomed like the petals of an heirloom rose, which then faded and fell to pieces. Iris was my mother's mother and my great-uncle Harper's older sister.

For a woman on her deathbed, my grandmother Iris looked remarkably pulled together. Her eyebrows had been freshly drawn in. Her lips were a frosted coral. Her gray hair had just been done in a modified, somewhat modernized bouffant. She had a visiting nurse and a visiting beautician. They were some of the perks of dying at home.

What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two. Those were the last words that my grandmother ever said to me.

Bitch, I said back to her in a voice as calm as if she had asked me for the time and I, standing by her bedside, had replied, Noon.

My great-uncle Harper let out a single hiccup, which was his way of suppressing a laugh. My grandmother's milky blue eyes closed and didn't open up again, according to my great-uncle, until a full minute later. DeAnne (that was what I called my mother by then) took that time to whisper, Hush your mouth, Linda. Then she pointed an outraged finger at the door, which I slammed shut on my way out.

For DeAnne, that exchange was a final excruciating example of what her seventy-four-year-old mother and her nineteen-year-old daughter had in common. My grandmother Iris and I were both speaking the truth, and DeAnne couldn't stand to hear it.

DeAnne had called me home from college to say my goodbyes:

Take a plane, Linda. For God's sake, don't take the bus again.

Are you sure this time? I've three exams next week-

I'll pay for the ticket.

Fine.

That was the longest conversation DeAnne and I had had in months. I loved my mother from the age of seven to eleven. That was four good years we had together, which was longer than most marriages. I would learn that bit of statistics in my sophomore psychology class, The American Family at the End of the 20th Century: Dysfunction, Dysfunction, What's Your Function? During my four years at Yale, I would gravitate toward classes with the word dysfunction featured prominently in the title or repeated at least several times in the course descriptions. I also would wish with every bone in my body that my father was still alive so that I could share with him what I had learned.

When my father died (he preceded Iris, to my great regret), he and DeAnne had been married for almost twenty-five years, many of them happy. The "happy" part was also according to my great-uncle Harper. I saw only the other parts. There was no physical violence or sobs or expletives. There was only unhappiness. I had no older brothers and sisters to report to me of better times: Mom and Dad used to give each other a kiss between saying "good" and "morning"; Dad tied on an apron every Sunday night and made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup from a can; Mom stayed in the kitchen with him and flipped through a magazine. All of that, if it took place, was lost to me.

I don't know why but I knew that my father was going to leave me too soon. So I missed him even when he was alive. Every time he left town on business, usually just an overnight trip to Raleigh, I would catch a cold. When he came back home, I would get well. For his part, my father never thought about missing me. Of course, he would be there to see me graduate from high school, attend his alma maters, enter the profession that nourished him, live in the city that he shared with me at bedtime in lieu of a fairy tale.

My grandmother Iris's funeral was delayed by a week because of the flowers. After her second heart attack, Iris had told us that she wanted magnolias on her coffin. Boughs and boughs of them, a cascading river of glossy green leaves with brown suede undersides, creamy blossoms the size of soup bowls floating among them. Iris didn't go into such details, but that was how my great-uncle Harper had envisioned the flowers when his sister told him what she expected. But in the middle of February, there weren't any magnolias to be had in Boiling Springs or anywhere else in the state of North Carolina. The florist in nearby Shelby had to special-order them from a wholesaler in New York City, who had to wait for a midweek shipment from somewhere in South America before the branches could be overnighted to Boiling Springs in a box almost as large as my grandmother's coffin. Baby Harper (that was what my grandmother had called her little brother since the day he was born, and that was sixty-three years ago by then) made all the funeral arrangements, and he would be the first to say that the flowers were the most complex and challenging part of it all. He took copious notes. Do's and don'ts for when his day came:

F Do have the wake at the Cecil T. Brandon Home of Eternal Rest; ask for the "Dignified Departure" package.

F Don't waste money on real flowers; one dead thing is enough.

F Do use a caterer from Asheville; see folder labeled "Victuals" for phone numbers and addresses.

F Don't place an order for the deviled eggs; they are delicious, but the old people will pass gas.

My great-uncle made a folder for his notes, showed it to me, and then alphabetized it in his personal files under T for "The End."

Before his retirement my great-uncle Harper was a librarian at Gardner- Webb Baptist College, the intellectual hub of Boiling Springs. At work his methodology was conventional and efficient, but that wasn't the case in his own home. His books were shelved in alphabetical order but not by titles. A for "Acerbic," B for "Buy Another Copy as Gift," C for "Cow Dung, as in This Stinks," D for "Devastating," E for "Explore Further," F for "Foreign" (foreign meant that my great-uncle couldn't relate to the characters in the book, not that the author was from another country), and so on. He would explain the system to me and give me typewritten pages identifying all twenty-six categories. This and his "The End" folder would be the closest documents to a will that Baby Harper (he had admitted to me long ago that he liked being called that, even when his sister, Iris, wasn't around) would ever prepare. When Iris passed away, my great-uncle had never left the continental United States, and the acquisition of the magnolias for her coffin made him think about places in the world even more southern than where he was born and raised. That thought sent him to the bookstore, where he bought a couple of travel guides and a novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Baby Harper filed these books under E.

My grandmother Iris was what her doctor called a "brittle" diabetic. During the course of a given day, her blood sugar levels would spike and then plunge precipitously. This roller-coastering exerted a tremendous amount of stress on her internal organs, especially her heart. She was lucky to have lived so long after the onset of the disease. The diagnosis of her diabetes had coincided with the fifth anniversary of the death of her husband, Walter Wendell Whatley. I have no memories of my grandfather, or Judge Whatley, as the rest of the county called him. Fifteen years my grandmother Iris lived on in Boiling Springs without him. After the first ten on her own, she told me that she wasn't lucky to have lived so long. She knew that I was the only one in her family who wasn't unnerved by her honesty.

Sadness attacked my grandmother at the weakest point of her body-her mouth. She loved her husband, but she had always lusted for sugar. While Walter Wendell was still alive, she stayed away from sweets, particularly the doughy and fried variety, in order to keep his eyes on her figure. Her dress size, a respectable eight, and her hairdo, a shoulder-length froth that required twice-weekly visits to Miss Cora's Beauty Emporium, had remained unchanged from the day that she had met Walter Wendell. Once he passed on, there was no good reason for her to stay the same. She cut several inches off her hair, setting her short locks in hot rollers by herself unless it was a special occasion. She also crammed herself with jelly doughnuts, apple fritters, cinnamon twists, and chocolate-covered crullers. The closest Krispy Kreme-she liked the one-stop shopping-was across the state line in Spartanburg, South Carolina. My great-uncle Harper told me that during the first year of Iris's solitary life in the green-shuttered colonial on Piedmont Street, she drove the thirty-eight miles between Boiling Springs and Spartanburg so often that she could do it in the darkness of the predawn with her eyes closed, dreaming of Walter Wendell.

As with most addicts, my grandmother Iris liked to share the experience. She was the one who gave me my first full bottle of Dr Pepper, straight from the fridge, not even bothering with a glass. I was seven at the time (already dancing with my great-uncle Harper), and I thought it was the beginning of something great between my grandmother and me. Iris took out a bottle for herself, and with three swigs she emptied every drop of its molasses-colored liquid.

Don't tell anyone, she said as she dabbed the corners of her mouth with a paper napkin.

About the Dr Pepper? I asked.

No, you little canary, she replied. About how I let you drink it straight from the bottle.

I remembered looking down at what was cold in my hands. There were sweat beads rolling down the glass bottle, just like in a television commercial. The bottle was still almost full. The initial rush of carbonation had burned my tongue, so I was trying to sip it slowly. Thanks to my grandmother Iris I had learned an important lesson: The difference between a fact and a secret was the slithery phrase "Don't tell anyone." I felt like pouring my Dr Pepper into the sink. I went out to the backyard of my grandmother's house and soaked the roots of her dogwood tree with it instead.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Bitter in the Mouth is a novel that invites us to consider what it means to be a family.
How are families defined and constructed within its pages?

2.

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?

3. 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"?

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. Linda Hammerick and Kelly Powell have been best friends since the age of seven. What did they have in common that brought them together?

7. "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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

12. 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?

13. Is Linda Hammerick a southerner? Is Bitter in the Mouth a southern novel? Why or why not?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 68 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(12)

4 Star

(14)

3 Star

(19)

2 Star

(11)

1 Star

(12)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 68 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2011

    Hated it

    I can't believe this book was recommended as the top books of 2010. It was a painful read. The author "tasted words" Every other sentence read like this: "Thisgreenbeans bookpeaches wascherries a wastecandied yams of timemint."It was beyond distracting and I am stunned that the book was able to be published.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2010

    Like a rich chocolate cake.

    Each sentence of this book was worth considering, reading twice. The reading was slow going because I had to reread various parts to make sure I understand the nuances and references, but the topic and relationships were fascinating. It's not a light read or one for the beach, but it's smartly written and worth picking up.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 12, 2011

    A very different kind of story set in the South.

    Bitter in the Mouth, the title, has more than one meaning in this very different story of a young woman growing up the in the South. The story turns and twists and captures you in feelings for the characters and their relationships with each other. I loved it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 31, 2011

    recommended

    slow moving, but intriguing read, I have read other books by this author this was not my favorite. Good discussion book

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2012

    Ok, tried to like it but...

    When you write a story it shouldn't be merely free assotiation.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2012

    Strangley Perfect

    I really liked this book. It was definitely a bit strange but it kept me interested and wanting more.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2012

    JUST NOT WHAT I WAS EXPECTING

    HAD HIGH EXPECTATIONS, WHICH WERE NOT MET. A SLOW READ, DIDN'T LIKE THE CHARACTERS

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2012

    A great read!

    I thoroughly enjoyed this story.  The characters were real, relatable and honest.  With the many obstacles that Linda had to over come, her story is of surviving.  Bitter is just one taste our lives experience and I think Linda is just a little bite of sweet and sour.  Then again, aren't we all?

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2012

    Sucked

    Hard to pick up. I'm only half way through and I just want it to STOP! Where the hell is it going anyway??

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2012

    Fascinating!

    Linda Hammerick can taste words....as she narrates her life complete with descriptions of the tastes, her story unfolds. Although she describes how difficult it was at times, I found myself wishing I too had this type of synesthesia.....The characters were beautifully drawn--uncle Harper especially is a delight! I will be reading more of Monique Truong

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  • Posted September 8, 2011

    Save your money

    I was very disappointed in this book. I read it but would not recommend it. I would not read any other books by this author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 1, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    MAY BE THE BEST BOOK I READ THIS YEAR AND IT IS JAN 1ST

    This book was beautiful, stsrt to finish, with a surprise turn in the middle. Was a stunningly written novel, I was sorry when it ended. Every character had a sympathetic side...even though it took time to see some of them. This book made me get right online to read her first book, which won a huge amount of awards and accolades. I am a huge reader of fiction and non-fiction and I highly recommend this book.

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    Posted December 25, 2010

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    Posted December 17, 2010

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    Posted January 6, 2011

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