The Book of Salt: A Novel

by Monique Truong

Hardcover, 2003

Call number




Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2003), 272 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML: A novel of Paris in the 1930s from the eyes of the Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, by the author of The Sweetest Fruits. Viewing his famous mesdames and their entourage from the kitchen of their rue de Fleurus home, Binh observes their domestic entanglements while seeking his own place in the world. In a mesmerizing tale of yearning and betrayal, Monique Truong explores Paris from the salons of its artists to the dark nightlife of its outsiders and exiles. She takes us back to Binh's youthful servitude in Saigon under colonial rule, to his life as a galley hand at sea, to his brief, fateful encounters in Paris with Paul Robeson and the young Ho Chi Minh. Winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award A Best Book of the Year: New York Times, Village Voice, Seattle Times, Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News, and others "An irresistible, scrupulously engineered confection that weaves together history, art, and human nature...a veritable feast."�Los Angeles Times "A debut novel of pungent sensuousness and intricate, inspired imagination...a marvelous tale."�Elle "Addictive...Deliciously written...Both eloquent and original."�Entertainment 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."�Publishers Weekly, starred review.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member sanguinity
Lovely-amazing! Fictional memoir of a gay Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris. The prose is beautiful; the storytelling richly woven back upon itself. As a narrator, Binh is scythingly perceptive, with a Parker-esque edge to his tongue. Class and power and empire
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and racism and sex and food and language and gender and family and--! The book narrates Binh's lifelong quest for love, both at home in Vietnam and as an exile. The book is full of walls -- language, class, race, expectations, shame -- and navigates the maze with a sense of bittersweet, painfully aware of the maze and separation created by these walls.
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LibraryThing member elenaj
Really fascinating and beautifully written book. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member Eoin
A clear-eyed, complicated, well voiced novel. Grand and simple, the book fits a full, beautiful world in briefly, managing to make terrible things palatable without losing the truth. The tone is remarkably rich while remaining direct, though it does occationally run to purple. A lovely book. Worth
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it for the food alone.
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LibraryThing member christinejoseph
1930's Paris, Viet cook of Gertrude Stein + Alice B. Toklas
Is salt — Kitchen, Sweat, Tears, or Sea
beautiful words — transition from Viet. to Paris — "gay" — fitting in own life Excellent

Binh, a Vietnamese cook, flees Saigon in 1929, disgracing his family to serve as a galley hand at sea.
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The taunts of his now-deceased father ringing in his ears, Binh answers an ad for a live-in cook at a Parisian household, and soon finds himself employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Toklas and Stein hold court in their literary salon, for which the devoted yet acerbic Binh serves as chef, and as a keen observer of his "Mesdames" and their distinguished guests. But when the enigmatic literary ladies decide to journey back to America, Binh is faced with a monumental choice: will he, the self-imposed "exile," accompany them to yet another new country, return to his native Vietnam, or make Paris his home?
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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
A novel told from the perspective of the gay, Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. An interesting way to reveal the relationship between Stein and Toklas. I found the book ultimately unsatisfying because I did not like the character of the cook, and I did not feel he was
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very well-defined or believable.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Set in the 1920s and 1930s, protagonist and narrator Binh is a young gay Vietnamese cook living in Paris and working as personal chef for Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. He had to leave French Indochina due to a failed relationship and his father’s disapproval. He tells of his
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life and loves in Saigon and Paris, as he observes the interactions between Stein and Toklas.

This story is told in stream-of-consciousness in a non-linear timeline with frequent unannounced shifts. There is not much of a plot here, but there are two stories – one of Binh and his travails, and the other of the Stein-Toklas relationship. The writing is evocative and there are several emotionally moving scenes.

The portrayal of Binh as a voice of a marginalized person works particularly well. Binh knows about French cuisine, and this knowledge of food helps him break through some of the traditional stereotypes he often encounters. I liked the elegant writing and storylines, but the structure did not work all that well for me. I think this is a case where the style occasionally gets in the way. Still, I found it well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member kaionvin
I have book-reviewing block, so this is going to be free-association-y rambling.

When I was twelve, I wrote a short story about a witch in the desert for my combined English/History class (yes it was one of those New Age-y things with a funny course name*). It was not a particularly good short
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story, though I was somewhat proud of the slowly unwinding suspense and the female-centric focus**, if only because after I’d gone about two pages over the page length suggestion and realized I’d need another ten pages to really make a plot arc and so instead ended it rather open-ended on the next page because hey, I’d already demonstrated sufficiently*** that I’d at least retained some knowledge of the rise of Islam during the Middle Ages, Bedouins, and Islamic culture.

Reading The Book of Salt reminded me of this long-forgotten assignment, because, well, The Book of Salt reads a lot like Monique Truong’s college-educated version of said assignment, demonstrating sufficiently her knowledge of the Lost Generation. Troung clearly knows Gertrude Stein’s salon and its visitors well, and observes it with equal measures art hanger-on-ism and pot-shot-taking. My own pet issue shoehorned into my desert setting was young female empowerment, but Truong’s is colonialism and homosexuality, as evidenced my her main character—Binh the Vietnamese cook of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.

Admittedly Monique Truong is a much better writer than I was at twelve (or now), but there’s still a overall perfunctory and rambly nature that the results share. The narrative doesn’t really go anywhere beyond its place setting or 20s Vietnam and Paris, and particularly Binh’s journey is less goes anywhere than simply gives context for more historical figures to show up… even when Truong makes obvious attempts at making his story Literary (as with the food descriptions, which disappointingly felt rather sterile and self-conscious rather than the food-porn I was looking forward to).

As a history assignment, an A for The Book of Salt, as literature, a D.

*I mean, why not combine the two most boring subjects into a 3 hour block of drudgery, right? Besides I happen to think Math and History would be a better combination. Or Physics and PE. Or Foreign Language and English.Yeah, I love reading and grammar and hate English classes. Go figure.
** though in retrospect, I could have just been unconsciously aping The Witch of Blackbird Pond
***And hey I got an A-. It was certainly better than my previous year’s “Public Speaking as Mary Queen of Scots” had turned out, (but not as good as my humorous play on feudalism’s labor exploitation starring puppets and human actors).
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LibraryThing member kalobo
I loved the richness of this book. Told from the perspective of Gertrude Stein's Vietnamese cook, it is both sensuous and poignant. I read it through once, then read it through again. One of my favorite books in recent years
LibraryThing member eenerd
An OK read but a little long-winded at times when the author would go off on philosophical tangents. The description of the parts set in Vietnam were wonderful. Most of the characters were beautifully developed.
LibraryThing member chersbookitlist
This is one of the most lyrical, sensual, poetic books I have ever read. You can feel the words with all of your senses. And if you love cooking, this book is a literary hymn to that art.

The relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas was obviously well -researched by the author and is
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presented in an intimately realistic way, yet in a muted enough fashion to reflect the language and cultural barrier of the narrator. While it is clear that the focus of the book is on Bin the Vietnamese chef, and not on Gertrude Stein and Alice, I do think that aspects of their relationship and lives that were so essential were in some respects not touched on very deeply. For example, the art that they displayed on their walls is of a caliber to be the envy of any modern art museum - Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir, etc. but was not discussed by the narrator although he is a person of deep artistic sensibilities (numerous times he monologues about the meaning of different colors). While cultural barriers may have meant he would not have known the artists, how could he not comment on their artwork until late in the book? This is by no means a fatal flaw though and the beauty of the rest of the book is enough to overcome that for me.
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LibraryThing member idyllwild
It's distinctly a debut novel. You can tell it's written in a state of transition, whether that's from poetry or from short stories to novels. The writing comes and goes in spurts, and no single story strand ever appears long enough to pick out a delicate pattern. It's just a mass of tangled
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threads at the end. But somehow the underlying fabric remains steady, and you're pulled through the narrative without meaning to be.The narrator, supposedly complex, is more a collection of traits than an individual. It's easy, almost too easy, to slip your conception of yourself in the clothes that hang too loose on Binh (that's what he's called, even if it's not his name). His history becomes yours, his desires become yours, and slowly, your impressions of last Tuesday's dinner creep into the story, and your memories of genius become intertwined with the portrayals in the prose, and your desire for a home becomes more important than anything Truong underscores. Your deficiencies, and your strengths, give Binh a body. He is nameless, transient, easily overpowered by reality. And I'm not certain that this is a bad thing. Unintentionally or intentionally, this sublimation of the individual through the prose echoes the sublimation of the individual through language, which echoes the sublimation of the individual through colonialism. I'm leaning favorably towards this reverberation. The ease by which all these flashing threads dazzle their way across the narrative, never quite settling down or allowing another to take center stage, makes this a fast read. It's a haphazard stream-of-consciousness, and that's not redundant. It's not stream-of-consciousness in that all thoughts just expel themselves onto the page. Binh's thoughts are still sheltered. But we read them, as if we were reading his face, as he remembers desire. The memories integrate themselves into our own consciousness so subtly that we're never sure if we're recalling his home, or ours. It doesn't matter. Neither of us has one.I loved reading this. I'm not sure if I loved digesting it, though. It packs a punch, without touching.
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LibraryThing member amydross
I was very intrigued by this book in concept, but ultimately found it precious, overwritten, and annoyingly coy.
LibraryThing member Berly
This book is beautifully written, lyrical. It has Paris, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as seen through the eyes of their Vietnamese cook. I should have loved it! Alas, no. Truth be told, I am 150 pages in and 100 to go, but I just can't finish it. Don't know why, but I am not drawn in. Could be
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that I am on pain meds after surgery, and this is not the right book. I think I will save it and see if it calls to me later.
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LibraryThing member astridnr
It was interesting to gain insight into the fictional lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in The Book of Salt. It was easy to believe their story to be true. The novel is narrated by the Vietnamese chef, who lives and works in the women's household. We are transported in time and space to
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Paris and southern France in the early 20th century. The author does a beautiful job creating both the milleu and characters. Themes covered are the salons in Paris in the 1930's, Vietnamese immigrants in Paris, kitchen life in private homes, homosexuality, art and literature.
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LibraryThing member purlewe
A very interesting historical fiction novel. Binh is GertrudeStein and Alice Toklas' Vietnamese chef. He tells the tale of his arrival in Paris France, of his life being a chef to 2 powerful women, as well as his family story. How he ends up loving men who do him wrong. How he keeps to himself in a
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city that only speaks French (which he understands but isn't fluent.)

It is the prose that gets me. Give me a good prose writer and I will keep coming back. Prose about food, love, France, travels etc. I eat that stuff for dinner.
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LibraryThing member ott
Another great find in the remainders. An interesting and well written story about a Viet-French cook, traversing through France and Viet Nam and with mesmerising descriptions of food.
LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Monique Truong's debut novel is about a (fictionalized) gay Vietnamese cook working in the household of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Exquisite descriptions of food, the immigrant experience, Paris in the twenties - I love this stuff. Didn't love this book, though. For my taste, the prose was
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overwrought and the narrator's voice was unconvincing. Stein and Toklas really don't figure much in the story, and their portrait seems cobbled together from basic research; they didn't breathe. I'll be very interested to hear my book club's reaction to this one. It got very good reviews, so it is not at all unlikely that I'm just missing something here.
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LibraryThing member ArleenWilliams
I found The Book of Salt a bit hard to stay with for my late evening reading, but deeply visual and moving.
LibraryThing member ChazziFrazz
When I picked up this book it was on the premise that it focused on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during their time living in France. It was through the eyes of their Vietnamese cook, Binh. I found that that was the backdrop for the story and that the main focus was the cook and his finding
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who he was.

Scenes of his young life and early work life in Viet Nam. A harsh upbringing with a demanding father and a submissive mother. The voice of his father making comments on Binh's life choices and how much his father felt Binh had failed. Binh was to become a cook and follow in his older brother's footsteps...but Binh made other choices and wound up going to sea and winding up in Paris. Here he goes to work for two American ladies, Stein and Toklas.

Written in a mix of current time frame and flashback, the reader moves between different times in Binh's life, while he examines then and how they influenced his current situation.

Truong is a beautiful writer and her style and word usage draws you along to continue reading. For me the subject wasn't to my preference. But her work is easy and pleasing to read and made me want to finish the book out of respect for her quality of writing.
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LibraryThing member EllenReads
Incredibly dull. Every character has the same voice. Nothing really happens. How could a book about this subject matter be so boring?
LibraryThing member JenneB
I heard a lot of great things about this but I didn't finish it. It seemed overly precious and writery.




0618304002 / 9780618304004


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