Casting Gertrude Stein as a book character is a bold move, but consigning her to the background and putting her absence to good use is even bolder. With dazzling sweep and a sturdy sense of purpose, first-time novelist Monique Truong eyes Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, through the shielded vision of their live-in cook in The Book Of Salt, a dreamily immersive novel that strains thoughts on food and language through a story about roots, faith, and the beguiling rewards of escape. The book's main figure, Binh, is a Vietnamese chef who takes a job cooking for the literary power-couple in their Paris apartment. Lost in a foreign land and beveled by a life of subservience, Binh sifts through an interior dialogue that follows his daily doings, from cooking with quinces to reconciling memories of his homeland and the cruel father whose taunts still sting. Stein and Toklas haunt the edges of Binh's testimony, but their presence works mostly to underscore themes that circle through his mind. As an exiled foreigner with no command of French, Binh spies his surroundings from a distance that offers both confusion and clarity; as a gay man, he lives in a solitude whose rare reprieves counter and confirm his loneliness. "My departure will signal that intimacy has joined the party," Binh says, touching on the kind of paradoxical state in which The Book Of Salt revels. Truong winds a virtuosic path through the book's murky impasses, writing with a meditative hum that proves as wide-eyed as it is solemn. The same qualities carry through to her characterizations of Stein and Toklas, a couple whose codependence strikes Binh as endearing and absurd. About Stein's own devotion to English in a land of French speakers, Truong writes: "Now that it is no longer applicable to the subject of everyday life, no longer wasted on the price of petrol, the weather, the health of other people's children, it has become for her a language reserved for genius and creation, for love and devotion." The Book Of Salt puts words to similarly high-minded use, finding a cure for isolation that bears a bittersweet tang.