The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate – Book Review

The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate
Published by Algonquin Books, an imprint of Workman Publishing

Josie Henderson wants nothing more than to leave her family and the legacy of addiction behind her. She’s married now, a successful scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Still, though, she is terrified that if anyone at work new about her family she would go from being the only black female scientist to be the black girl whose daddy used to be a drunk and whose brother is in rehab. Life had been going more or less smoothly, but now her brother Tick’s release from rehab forces Josie to once again face her family. When a new scientist with a background similar to Josie’s own joins the staff at Woods Hole, it quickly becomes apparent that Josie’s carefully constructed life is simply a veneer, and that what is underneath is not as solid as she believes.

Martha Southgate creates with The Taste of Salt a moving picture of the ramifications of growing up in a dying Midwestern town, and the long echoes of alcoholism on a family. Neither Josie nor her mother realize just how much the alcoholism of the men in their family has damaged them, and their inability to confront these realities and ask for help from a program such as Al-Anon wreaks devastation on their lives. Josie in particular is somewhat broken by the experience of growing up with an alcoholic father, and as a result has intimacy issues of her own. Interestingly, Southgate mirrors Josie’s disconnect from her husband Daniel by making him the character kept at the greatest difference from the reader; he appears in The Taste of Salt as little more than a faint reflection of Josie, and it is by his virtual absence that the reader comes to grips with the true loneliness of Josie’s life.

That is not to say that The Taste of Salt is completely bleak. The positive side of Josie’s life essentially coming apart at the seams is that she is forced to consider, for the first time in a long time, exactly who she is and what it is that she wants from life, other than her career. Too, Josie is made to confront her family’s past, going so far as to imagine for the reader what her parents’ life together was like before she came along, a narrative pieced together from stories and impressions from her childhood. All of this forces Josie to grow as a character and leaves the reader with a feeling of hope for her future.

The Taste of Salt is a lovely book, and an incredibly discussable one. Recommended.

If you would like to discuss The Taste of Salt, come back here on Tuesday, November 15th for our BOOK CLUB discussion. Also, check out our BOOK CLUB giveaway for December: Maman’s Homesick Pie by Donia Bijan

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9 comments to The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate – Book Review

  • The Taste of Salt sounds wonderful. I am a reader who loves both character & setting, and it sounds like both are prevalent in this novel. I don’t find or read many books set in the Midwest, so this would be a departure from my regular southern literature (or the many books set in NYC).

  • Meg

    Glad to know that, despite the serious subject matter, this isn’t a totally bleak book! I love the title and cover, and the premise sounds very unique. I would definitely give this a read.

  • I’m picking this one up as soon as I finish Salvage the Bones. I love Midwestern books, and it just sounds so interesting. I’m looking forward to the book club discussion!

  • Jen- Glad you liked it. I just loved the imagined life of Josie’s parents. As a reader, I also loved how much her father loved his books, and what a loss it was to him that he couldn’t pursue a more scholarly life. To me, that was the whole root of his alcoholism, and the beginning of a multi-generational crisis. And even if many of Josie’s struggles stemmed from her identity as a black female scientist, I could totally relate to her sense of not-quite-belonging in the new life she made for herself. What a great book club discussion that would make!

  • I liked this book a lot, too. To keep herself from getting hurt, Josie keeps herself at a distance from everyone, but doesn’t realize how much that in itself is hurting her.

  • I have read this and put off and put off writing the review for some reason.

    I liked the book (not as much as I LOVED the cover) but I did not like Josie. In fact, maybe the character I lied best was her father, the alcoholic father.
    I need to write my review…..

    • I found Josie distant and cold. I had trouble identifying with her, because I just don’t view life with the same lens. However, I did not dislike her. I found her refreshing because she is just so different from the usual “strong female protagonist” fare I’ve picked up in the past. I liked seeing the cracks deepen and how she would respond to them.

      I am not sure who my favorite character is…I think I enjoyed Ray and Tick the most, how they described their circumstances and tried to pick out why they struggled so.

  • Jen,

    I devoured the latest book club pick this weekend and posted my review while the thoughts were still fresh in my mind! I look forward to the discussion this week!