What the Mouth Wants by Monica Meneghetti is, unfortunately, one of those books that just wasn’t for me. But let me try to talk about it a bit, in a way that will hopefully tell you whether it might be the book for you! First, check out that beautiful cover!
Meneghetti’s book—subtitled “a memoir of food, love, and belonging”—is a memoir told in short, vignette-like passages. Sometimes the passages are quick short, like prose poems. Other times they are more straight-forward recounting of past experiences, albeit occasionally written in the immediacy of present tense. Meneghetti writes about coming out as bisexual in a small town years before gay rights movements became mainstream, her mother’s death from breast cancer when Meneghetti was a teenager, complicated family dinners that are sometimes terrible, polyamory, her abusive dad, and food, food, food.
The memoir is strongly infused with Meneghetti’s traditional Italian-Catholic upbringing, whether she’s talking about the pasta her mother makes or the way the patriarchy rooted in religion rears its head in her family. I imagine that for readers with backgrounds similar to Meneghetti’s, this aspect of the book will have a lot of pull. There are also undoubtedly parts of the particular Italian-Catholicness of this book that I couldn’t fully appreciate. (Although the descriptions of delicious food like pasta, cheese, sausage, gelato, and more rang very true to this food-loving non-Italian).
What the Mouth Wants is organized, appropriately, like an Italian meal: first “antipasti,” then “primi,” “secondi e contorni,” and finally “frutti e formaggi.” I love the idea of weaving the theme of Italian food into the very structure of the book. But I didn’t love the result. Most of all, the structure just didn’t have any meaning for me when I was reading. I couldn’t piece together why certain pieces of writing were placed in certain sections. It wasn’t based on length of the writing, theme, chronology, or any reason that I could ascertain. If anyone else has read this book and has insight on the organization of the writing, I would love to hear your thoughts!
I love a good non-chronological memoir (Lydia Yuknavitch’s incredible bisexual memoir Chronology of Water comes to mind). But What the Mouth Wants felt less like a deliberately structured non-chronological memoir and more a disorganized manuscript of writing that didn’t have enough care put into its structure as a book. It’s not to say that Meneghetti’s writing isn’t sometimes very interesting on the sentence or passage level; it is, although it is also lacklustre at other times. But for me the lack of cohesion and meaningful structure overwhelmed the value that I found in a few of the individual pieces. If cohesion and organization aren’t fussy issues for you like they are for me, you may feel differently!
The other issue I had with What the Mouth Wants is that I just never felt like the characters came alive. I wanted to feel like I knew them, and I didn’t. This weakens the emotional resonance of the events of Menegehtti’s life that she recounts. Readers need to understand and be familiar with the people in the books they’re experiencing—whether those people are real in a memoir or fictional characters in a novel.
Overall, for me there were just too many areas of this memoir that were lacking; the strengths didn’t make up for the weaknesses. For a different perspective, check out this review in the Edmonton Journal. Again, I’d be very happy to hear about other readers’ experiences with What the Mouth Wants. Please share in the comments!