Monique Truong

Bitter in the Mouth

  • 54-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 22 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a former professor with both an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing
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Bitter in the Mouth Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 54-page guide for “Bitter in the Mouth” by Monique Truong includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 22 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Difference and Convention and Truth, Lies, Secrets, and Gray Areas.

Bitter in the Mouth, by Monique Truong, is a contemporary work of literary fiction first published in 2010. The novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness style in which the protagonist, Linda Hammerick, recounts her experience growing up as a Vietnamese American girl with synesthesia adopted by a white family in Boiling Springs, North Carolina in the 1970s. The novel explores issues of race, gender, sexuality, family, truth, and trauma.

The novel is split into two parts, subtitled “Confession: … August 3, 1998” and “Revelation: August 4, 1998 …”. Although it is never made explicit, the dates refer to travel dates: Linda departs New York City on a Greyhound bus on August 3rd, and she arrives in Gastonia, close to Boiling Springs, on August 4th. The title refers to Linda’s first memory, which is of a taste of bitterness evoked by a word from the night of the fire that killed her parents; she has never identified the taste or recalled the word.

Due to the stream-of-consciousness narrative style, the plot does not follow a strict chronology but jumps around in time, weaving memories together based more on experience and emotion than plot progression. This study guide refers to the Amazon Kindle edition of the book.

Plot Summary 

Part 1, subtitled “Confession: … August 3, 1998,” might be loosely thought of as Linda’s thoughts as she travels on the first day of her bus trip back to Boiling Springs some time after the death of her great uncle, Harper (although Linda never states this explicitly). It focuses primarily on Linda’s childhood experiences up through her college graduation at Yale.

Linda is the daughter of Thomas and DeAnne Hammerick; she grows up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, nearby her grandmother, Iris Burch, and her great uncle, “Baby” Harper Evan Burch, who is a closeted homosexual and cross-dresser. Linda calls Harper her “first love” because he taught her how to dance and speaks with a sing-songy voice, which makes it easier for Linda—who has a neurological condition that causes her to taste words—to talk to him. She is also fond of her father, and while he is alive, she finds that she gets sick every time he goes away, then gets better as soon as he returns. However, she merely tolerates Iris and actively despises her mother after the age of 11.

Linda’s mainstay throughout her childhood is her best friend, Kelly Powell. Kelly is the only person with whom Linda shares her word-tasting ability, and they figure out that listening to music is one way for Linda to blunt some of that sensation. They both have a crush on the same boy, Wade Harris, and later, as adults, they will exchange almost daily letters about their lives. At the end of this first section, Linda reveals a string of “confessions”: First, she was raped by Kelly’s cousin, Bobby—and when Linda told her mother about it, DeAnne had no appreciable reaction, which is why their relationship has disintegrated. Second, Kelly became pregnant as a teenager—with an unnamed father who we later learn is Wade—and moved away from town to have to her baby, Luke. Finally, Linda’s original name was Linh-Dao; she is a transracial adoptee whose family has spent her entire life talking around the fact that she is ethnically Vietnamese but whose experience has been of unremitting otherness.

Part 2, subtitled “Revelation: August 4, 1998 …,” might be loosely thought of as Linda’s thoughts as she concludes her journey and reconnects with her friends and family back in Boiling Springs. Although Part 2 discusses and completes events that occurred prior to August 4th, the ellipses suggest that we are meant to think of August 4th as a starting point, and much of the narrative indeed takes place after this date, which doesn’t occur in the story until the end of Chapter 17.

By this time, Linda has graduated from law school and is a junior partner in a law firm in New York City, where she is trying to make sense of appearing Asian on the outside while feeling Southern-white on the inside. She is engaged to Leopold “Leo” Thomas Benton, a psychologist who appears to have an issue with the fact that Linda was adopted. Not only that, but Linda has just found out that she has ovarian cancer, which means that after treatment, she won’t be able to have children—another problem that Leo can’t handle. On a more positive note, she has finally figured out that her word-tasting is a condition called synesthesia, and she has mentally formed a pseudo-family with famous people who also had it: author Vladimir Nabokov, who saw colors in letters, and artist Wassily Kandinsky, who heard music when he looked at colors.

The final revelation is about the circumstances of Linda’s adoption. It turns out that her biological mother, Mai-Dao, was one of the many women who Thomas had affairs with during his 25-year unhappy marriage to DeAnne. Eventually, Mai-Dao returned to Vietnam but continued corresponding with Thomas even after she married and had a baby. When Thomas learned about what life was like for Mai-Dao’s family during the Vietnam War, he offered to take in baby Linda. As the novel ends, DeAnne, who has been telling Linda this story about her adopted father, seems to be feeling new kindness for the daughter she could never quite love.

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