The Book of Salt is a slog. A dreary, overwritten, underplotted slog through the "adventures" (which mainly consist of remembering his unfortunate past) of the cook employed in the 1930s in the Parisian household of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Finding out the "B" in Alice B. Toklas stands for "Babette" may be the most interesting thing in the book.
Binh, the cook, who narrates the tale, has a tendency to apply a minimum of three adjectives to every noun. He applies cutesy names to the other characters (I think it's meant to be poetic), like his lover, Sweet Sunday Man. And then he repeats the name endlessly, so half of the paragraph is really just his lover's three word name over and over again. The writing is dense and opaque, to the point where I had no idea what the narrator was talking about, even when he's describing something as simple as making an omelet. Some of it is so pretentious, so absurdly overwrought, that it made me burst out laughing. One of my favorites, a description of Toklas's arrival at Stein's door in Paris: "Why ask whether there were other hearts fluttering, racing, at 27 Rue de Fleurus before she walked through the door, before she slid through the vivid red, the scarlet-curtained walls of her second birth canal?"
|Gertrude and Alice|
Or this: "The empty clotheslines of her lips." Or: "Skin the color of slowly pouring cream." Or: "Hair the color of properly brewed tea." And those are all from just one paragraph!
There are no interesting peeks into either Stein or Toklas's lives and characters, or any mention of the other artists and writers who frequented their famous Parisian salon. There's not much of a portrait of Vietnam (which is why I read the book in the first place) or even Paris. It's so hard to glimpse anything through the "slowly pouring cream" of the language that the main thing the book left me thinking about, was why I read the whole darn thing in the first place.