The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 261 pp., $24 (cloth).

It’s Paris, 1929. You’re young, Vietnamese and gay. You don’t speak much French, but you can cook a mean omelet. You see an ad in the paper: “Two American Ladies Wish to Retain a Cook.” You answer the ad. You get the job.

It would take quite an imagination to conjure up such a situation, but in fact, it really happened. The literary Mesdames Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had exactly such a chef for six years at 27 Rue de Fleurus, where they hosted fabled salons for “The Lost Generation.”

But, as these things go, the chef was relegated to a line in a cookbook. It was in that book that Monique Truong happened upon the mention of the “Indochinese cook,” and began to concoct a far more delectable treat than Miss Toklas’ famous hash brownies, which was what she’d originally been looking for.

Binh, an exile from French-colonized Saigon, wanders around Paris, alternately remembering a painful past and daydreaming of finding a home. Hired by a woman who looks like an owl and her cigar-smoking companion who writes at the dining room table, he devotes himself to culinary creations, the only language he shares with the women. While he is grateful for their patronage and bemused by the goings-on at the home of the woman he calls “GertrudeStein,” inside he simmers and occasionally boils over.

“While you have been waking up to the aroma of coffee brewing, dressing to the hushed rhythm of other people’s labor, I have been in the kitchen since I was six and in your kitchen since six this morning. In my life as a minor domestic . . . I have prepared thousands of omelets. You have attempted three, each effort wasted, a discarded half-moon with burnt-butter craters, a simple dish that in a stark and economical way separates you and me.”

But there’s much more that separates them. He’s never been called by his given name. His old man called him “Stupid.” Gertrude Stein calls him “Thin Bin.” His American lover calls him “Bee,” as in honey. As an exile, he feels “the pure sea salt sadness of the outcast” in his bones.

Truong herself has felt the sting of alienation. Born in Saigon in 1968, her family moved to America when she was a child. Though well established and successful in Vietnam, things were different in North Carolina, where they lived in a trailer. Since there were no English-as-a-second-language classes, the young Monique was sent to speech therapy school instead. She went on to Yale and Columbia School of Law, recently leaving the law to devote herself to writing.

It was the right choice. Aside from the topical subjects of exile, colonialism, homosexuality, food politics and art, how many people have the insight and brio to follow a minor character in a major literary life and craft a novel from the margins? And how many lawyers write of kitchen fans as “giant star anises suspended from the ceiling” or talk of onions, carrots and celery as “the trinity of a French kitchen?” Truong’s impressionistic, sensual language resonates on so many levels, often reaching “the point at which all things melt in the mouth”:

“Quinces are ripe, GertrudeStein, when they are the yellow of canary wings in midflight. They are ripe when their scent teases you with the snap of green apples and the perfumed embrace of red roses. But even then quinces remain a fruit, hard and obstinate-useless, GertrudeStein, until they are simmered, coddled for hours above a low, steady flame. Add honey and water and watch their dry, bone-colored flesh soak up the heat, coating itself in an opulent orange, not of the sunrises that you never see but of the insides of tree-ripened papayas, a color you can taste. To answer your question, GertrudeStein, love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched.”

But for all the novel’s lush sensuality, it is the interior life of Binh, torn between cultures and languages, that is rife with flavor and possibility. His is a bittersweet life, marked by “the salt of tears, sweat, blood and the sea.”

At the Stein house, he complains that even the furniture attracts more attention. And at their country villa, he tires of being the Asiatic sideshow freak to their circus act. As Binh decides whether to stay in Paris, return to Vietnam, or travel with the two ladies to America, he too, waits for his own story to unfold. Secrets emerge, the past unravels, and the future beckons.

With the eye of a painter, the palate of a chef and the heart of a poet, Truong’s terrific first novel has taken us into the world of this invisible man and made it matter.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.