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The Sweetest Fruits: A Novel, by Monique Truong.

July 7, 2019

The Sweetest Fruits
The Sweetest Fruits: A Novel, by Monique Truong.  Viking, September  2019.


4 stars

An international writer’s life as imagined by an American author and told from the perspectives of women who knew him; his biographer, his mother, and his two wives.

Monique Truong is a Vietnamese-American author and the author of two previous, popular and prize-winning books.  She was born in Saigon in 1968 and came to America with her parents in 1975. She grew up in the American South, graduated from Yale, and earned a law degree from Columbia.  Her book, Bitter in the Month, is a fictionalized version of her early life.

The Sweetest Fruits is Truong’s account of Lafcadio Hearn, an early twentieth-century author, born in Greece and raised in Ireland.  As a young man, he came to Cincinnati where he worked as a journalist before going to the Caribbean and later Japan.  Truong tells his story through four different voices.  In 1906 his female biographer and patron mainly supplied basic facts of his life.  Hearn’s mother, a woman of the Greek islands, writes to him as a toddler explaining why she took him to his British father’s family and then essentially abandoned him.  The African American woman he met and married in Cincinnati describes what he was like when they were married and lived in the city.  The Japanese woman with whom he also married and with whom he had four children tells of his later years.

Hearn comes across as an engaging wanderer with little ability to put down roots.  More important to Truong’s book, he serves as a focus for her exploration of different perspectives.  Given his unconventional life, Truong also explores issues of living at the edges of society as an exile and observer in cultures not his own.  My favorite section was that in which Hearn’s Cincinnati wife gives an interview to a white woman about her life with him.   Mattie, the cook at his boarding house, relates the pleasure and joy of their time together although their bonds as an inter-racial couple were not legal.  The woman interviewing her has absolutely no sense of life as lived by a black, working-class woman, and Mattie regularly sets her straight with just the right sense of polite disgust.

Truong is an imaginative and experimental writer, a sheer pleasure to read. Her extensive research is presented with lightness and grace. This is a delightful book even if you care nothing about Hearn.  It is about what it means to be a human being, living outside the privileges we assume.

Do read this engaging book.

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