Reading guide for The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

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The Book of Salt

by Monique Truong

The Book of Salt
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2002, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2004, 272 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About The Book of Salt

"A lush, fascinating, expansive first novel about exile." — New York Times

"An irresistible, scrupulously engineered confection that weaves together history, art and human nature . . . Truong has, after much deliberation, cultivated a veritable feast." — Los Angeles Times

"[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: 'Two American ladies wish . . .' " It was these lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book that inspired The Book of Salt, a brilliant first novel by acclaimed Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong.

In Paris, in 1934, Bính has accompanied his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to the train station for their departure to America. His own destination is unclear: will he go with "the Steins," stay in France, or return to his native Vietnam? Bính has fled his homeland in disgrace, leaving behind his malevolent charlatan of a father and his self-sacrificing mother. For five years, he has been the live-in cook at the famous apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Before Bính's decision is revealed, his mesmerizing narrative catapults us back to his youth in French-colonized Vietnam, his years as a galley hand at sea, and his days turning out fragrant repasts for the doyennes of the Lost Generation.

Bính knows far more than the contents of the Steins' pantry: he knows their routines and intimacies, their manipulations and follies. With wry insight, he views Stein and Toklas ensconced in blissful domesticity. But is Bính's account reliable? A lost soul, he is a late-night habitué of the Paris demimonde, an exile and an alien, a man of musings and memories, and, possibly, lies. Love is the prize that has eluded him, from his family to the men he has sought out in his far-flung journeys, often at his peril. Intricate, compelling, and witty, the novel weaves in historical characters, from Stein and Toklas to Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Minh, with remarkable originality. Flavors, seas, sweat, tears — The Book of Salt is an inspired feast of storytelling riches.



Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of The Book of Salt for every reader.

  1. "Gertrude Stein thinks it is unfathomably erotic that the food she is about to eat has been washed, pared, kneaded, touched, by the hands of her lover." How is food — and cooking — used as seduction in The Book of Salt? Compare the meals between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with the meals Bính shares with Sweet Sunday Man and the man on the bridge. How is the reader also seduced or persuaded by these meals? Have you ever wooed someone with what you fed them?

     
  2. Bính says, "All my employers provide me with a new moniker, whether they know it or not . . . Their mispronunciations are endless, an epic poem all their own." How is Bính "lost in translation" in The Book of Salt? His interior monologue is lush and eloquent, but he can speak only a few words in French and English — what is the reader privy to that the other characters are not? Have you ever lived in a place where you weren't able to fully speak your mind?
     
  3. O Magazine said, "Salt, whether from 'kitchen, sweat, tears, or the sea' — is the secret of this perfectly rendered book." How is salt used as an ingredient in Bính's story?

     
  4. What does Gertrude Stein's (invented) manuscript, "The Book of Salt," have to do with The Book of Salt? Sweet Sunday Man tells Bính that Gertrude Stein's version "captured you perfectly." Could that be true? How do you imagine it reads?

     
  5. The Book of Salt begins with Bính waiting for the train that will lead the Steins to America. He seems to be facing a choice: "I thought that fate might have been listening in . . ." How did you expect the story to end? Did you think that Bính would leave Paris? Where would he go? How did the ending of the novel surprise you?

     
  6. Bính says, "Love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched." Is love what Bính is looking for in Paris? He does finally get his much-desired photograph of Sweet Sunday Man, and Sweet Sunday Man also takes a rare item. How is love given and taken throughout the story? What are the characters left with? Have you kept (or stolen) artifacts of a past love?

     
  7. Bính says, "When I am telling the truth, why does it so often sound like a lie?" Do you believe Bính's stories? What is the importance of truth in The Book of Salt, and what are the consequences of lies? Do you ever tell stories differently than others remember them?

     
  8. When the Steins vacation outside Paris with Bính, he says, "What you probably do not know, Gertrude Stein, is that in Bilignin you and Miss Toklas are the only circus act in town. And me, I am the asiatique, the sideshow freak." How are the Steins and Bính aligned as outsiders? And how are they not? What is revealed in the Steins' response to Lattimore and Paul Robeson — how is it different from the Bilignin villagers' response to Bính?

     
  9. ". . . the Old Man's anger has no respect for geography…even here, he finds me." Does Bính seem "shamed" by his exile? Does he seem freed? How do we carry the judgment of our parents? What "voices" followed you when you first left your family home?

     
  10. Bính uses the color red often when describing his mother: "Red is luck that she had somehow saved, stored, and squandered on her youngest son." What other meanings does he give to red? Why does he cut his fingertips? Did Bính's vision of the gray pigeon in the park change your understanding of his mother, and of what Bính left behind in Vietnam?

     
  11. Bính says of the Steins' apartment, "This is a temple, not a home." Do you agree? Are you familiar with the works of Gertrude Stein or Alice B. Toklas? Has The Book of Salt changed the way you think of them?

     
  12. Who is the scholar-prince? Do you think Bính ever finds his? Did his mother find hers? How much do folk and fairy tales shape what we expect from romantic love? Do you have a certain myth in mind when you think of "ever after"?


For Further Reading

The following titles may be of interest to readers who enjoyed The Book of Salt.
Becoming Madame Mao
by Anchee Min
The Woman Who Knew Gandhi by Keith Heller
La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl by David Huddle
Grass Roof, Tin Roof by Dao Strom

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Mariner Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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