Review of “The Taste of Salt” by Martha Southgate

Josie Henderson, 36, is the only black senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Her husband Danny, who is white, is also a scientist there. Her marriage isn’t satisfying to her; she feels hungers that she can’t express with Danny, who is a quiet loving man who just wants Josie and a family. Josie loves Danny, but wants something different; she wants more sexual diversity and she doesn’t want kids. She wants more excitement and more zip in her life. And in fact, her marital situation is a reflection of the existential dichotomy that is constantly ripping apart Josie’s psyche. She is a black person in a mostly white milieu, and she is ambivalent about it. Part of her wants to remain totally separate from her background, which included coming from a blighted city and a family destroyed by alcoholism. In fact, it is partly the fear of being pulled into that spiral of failure that has driven her. But another part of her wants to celebrate her brownness and share her ethnic predilections with someone who “gets” them.

Much of Josie’s story concerns the two men of her nuclear family: her father, whose alcoholism broke the family apart, and her brother “Tick” who now is addicted to alcohol and drugs. Josie avoids both of them; she is full of contempt, shame, and fear that associating them will somehow contaminate her. She especially resents her father for giving up his family to the siren call of alcohol. And yet, when another black scientist, Ben, finally comes to Woods Hole, Josie is willing to throw away her own family to experience some of what she herself has been craving.

Discussion: Given Josie’s own weaknesses, I found her lack of sympathy for her father and brother rather astonishing. She is totally focused on their failures, and exhibits a total lack of self-awareness about her own. (This in spite of Josie’s contention that “I’m a scientist. I like to get to the bottom of things.”) Certainly she could be angry and sad and want to distance herself alongside of some understanding for them. And indeed, Josie seems flummoxed that her mother still feels something for her father, as if relationships have to be all good all the time or love can’t or shouldn’t persist. I also thought it unrealistic that given her scientific bent and understanding of the limitations of twelve-step programs that she would not have helped her brother get into some of the programs that use opioid receptor antagonists for management of alcohol and drug addiction.

At the end of the book, I didn’t see that Josie had any more insight than she had at the beginning. Some characters were badly hurt, some were struggling mightily with their own demons, but Josie was just ready to go on blithely, still convinced that no one else’s problems or pain were more important than her own inner conflicts.

Evaluation: I didn’t like Josie, the main character, and wasn’t convinced of her verisimilitude as an accomplished black scientist. I also thought that Southgate attributed some differences to race that weren’t necessarily justified; there are a lot of variables that can cause couples not to share the same outlook or taste in music, for example, from age to social class to the community in which you grew up. Southgate didn’t convince me (in this narrative, at any rate) that Ben’s appeal over Danny was due to anything more than external color, and that seemed rather ironically short-sighted of Josie after spending her life trying to prove that external color is superfluous. And finally, I didn’t feel anything actually happened in the book to change the protagonist. It left me feeling rather dissatisfied.

Rating: 3.2/5

Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2011

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27 Responses to Review of “The Taste of Salt” by Martha Southgate

  1. I didn’t think this book would be for me, and you kind of confirmed that. Sorry I didn’t work for you either.

  2. sandynawrot says:

    Just your description of her turned me off. Sounds like she was a walking double-standard.

  3. amymckie says:

    Too bad this one wasn’t better. It sounds a bit odd that she was so, in the end, shallow about so much still.

  4. zibilee says:

    Oh, I bet this book would have frustrated me a lot. I mean, when a character denies their own faults and refuses to recognize them, and instead focuses on the faults of others it niggles at me. It also bothers me that there is no real growth to the protagonist in the story. I have not heard a whole lot of good things about this book, and so, I probably will not read it, but I did really appreciate your analysis on this one!

  5. Barbara says:

    Books in which the characters don’t change seem kind of useless to me. I don’t get why this woman married a white man if she’s so caught up in race nor why she has no sympathy for her father and brother. This one is definitely not for me.

  6. At first I thought this book sounded interesting, but now I’m not so sure. I don’t have to feel totally connected to or even like the main character, but it seems kind of pointless if they don’t change much over the course of the book.

  7. Jen - Devourer of Books says:

    I didn’t think that Southgate – or even necessarily Josie – believed that relationships are necessarily better if the people in them are of the same race. Josie was so damaged and unable to trust from her childhood and being let down by her father that she seemed to be looking for any excuse to keep herself at a remove from her husband. Race was just convenient.

  8. TheBookGirl says:

    I don’t think this is the book for me. A main character that fails to grow at all and shifts the blame for everything bad in her life to others is one that would frustrate me to no end.

  9. Wendy says:

    I enjoyed reading your take on this book – I liked it a lot better than you did (although I agree that Josie was not all that likable and had a ton of issues herself). For me this was less about he black/white dichotomy and more about Josie’s troubling desire to pretend her past never occurred and thinking she could go forward without resolving any of those conflicts – in essence, leaving her bio family behind while she tried to create the family she never had (minus kids). For me it was an interesting psychological study. And I loved Southgate’s writing!

  10. Steph says:

    Oh dear… your description of this book leads me to believe that I would HATE it. The main character sounds insufferable and like one of those people who will just never be happy because she doesn’t really want to be. I will avoid this one unless I want to fill myself with rage!

  11. BermudaOnion says:

    Hm, I do like for something to happen in a book, so I’ll have to think about this one.

  12. Meg says:

    Books where we’re supposed to believe a main character has “changed” over the course of a novel without any evidence of that are such a pet peeve. I hate when people act out of character and contradict themselves! Sounds like this wouldn’t be a book for me.

  13. Having read so many positive reviews of this book…and so loving the cover…I hoped for a bit more than I got from this book. I think I liked it a bit more than you..maybe…but I still had big issues with it.
    and you hit two of them.

    I did not like Josie and her unforgiving attitude toward her father and brother was harsh. Yet ye without sin cast the first stone honey. Was her childhood so terrible, was it so damaging? NO. A pretty stable home, private school, excellent student, great job, great husband..oh poor Josie.
    And the issue of her being black, and that somehow being a defining issue..well, I was not sold on it.
    yep…I have to write my review soon while I am still worked up. lol

  14. Every time I see this book around the blogosphere I am confused that it’s not The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith. Based on your review I guess I should just stick with the Highsmith.

  15. Darlene says:

    I’ve looked at this book a few times but something always held me back from picking it up. After reading your thoughts I’m glad I passed on it.

  16. Too bad this one didn’t work for you. The cover is quite pretty!

  17. Jenners says:

    Well, the cover is very attractive.

  18. I love how you really dissect this woman and get to the real issues in this book.

  19. Thanks for your thoughts on this Jill.. this one is in the TBR pile but I have not been drawn to read it as of yet.

  20. softdrink says:

    Urgh, sounds depressing.

  21. Stephanie says:

    I usually find it hard to enjoy a novel if I dislike the protagonist. It sounds like this one had potential. I wonder why the author didn’t let Josie grow and evolve a bit?

  22. stacybuckeye says:

    I am so not interested in this one, thank you for reviewing a book I don’t have to put on my wish list 🙂
    I saw Southgate on CNN when The Help came out and found her…judgemental? I don’t know, but it didn’t make me want to buy her book!

  23. Vasilly says:

    I feel the same way about this book as you. It was a good story but there’s not enough to feel for the main character at all. 😦

  24. Pingback: The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate – Book Review | Linus's Blanket

  25. Pingback: BOOK CLUB – The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate - Devourer of Books

  26. Julie P. says:

    Hmmmm. Was debating picking this one up, but I fear that I would be left wanting for more too — especially given the main character.

  27. Serena says:

    I have certain issues with this book. I didn’t like Josie, and I don’t like the race issue here. I think its misplaced and is just used as a crutch.

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