Book Review : Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

Bitter Melon
Hardcover, 309 pages
Published December 28th 2010 by EgmontUSA
Frances, a Chinese-American student at an academically competitive school in San Francisco, has always had it drilled into her to be obedient to her mother and to be a straight-A student so that she can go to Med school. But is being a doctor what she wants? It has never even occurred to Frances to question her own feelings and desires until she accidentally winds up in speech class and finds herself with a hidden talent. Does she dare to challenge the mother who has sacrificed everything for her? Set in the 1980s.

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow is a book that stands out from the array of typical young adult novels. It is a book that deals with tough love, heartbreak, hopes, dreams and family abuse. It is a story about a girl whose path is mapped out for her, but her heart wishes for something else - something that stokes her inner flame and enables her to express who she really is.

I finished this book in a day, and I was truly amazed at the realistic portrayal of the characters in the book. Accompanied by my constant interest in the gripping story was the horror that a mother would treat her only child in such manner - it was quite unacceptable and to me it seemed borderline psychotic.

Frances is a top student in school. Her mother wishes her to go to UC Berkeley and study to become a doctor. Though she listens to her mother's words, Frances is unsure about her future until she accidentally stumbles into speech class and discovers a talent that she never knew she possesses. Guided by an experienced, dedicated teacher, she learns that words are actually a powerful medium that enables her to create influence on others. She then begins to participate in various speech activities behind her mother's back. Though guilt sometimes gnaws at her for lying to her mother, she is determined to win a speech contest.

I have to admit, I do admire Frances' guts. If it were me, I don't think I would be able to revolt against my mom as she did. She is willing to face the various obstacles to pursue her dreams even though she knows that once her mom finds out what she's doing, she's dead meat. However, there's one thing I didn't like about Frances, which is how she treats her presumably best friend, Theresa.

Frances is always asking Theresa to cover up for her, but she never really cared for Theresa. I have a feeling that she is merely using Theresa and not treating her as a real friend should. When Theresa gets a date at prom, Frances asks her not to call him just because she is jealous that Theresa is able to get a boy to dance with her while she herself fails to do so.

Frances' mother reminds me of Amy Chua, the Yale Professor who wrote a book called Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother on how her Asian-style parenting worked on her kids. Like Chua, Frances' mother is very demanding of her daughter's high academic scores. In my eyes, she is merely a mother who pushes her kid too hard just so that Frances can achieve the so-called "success" defined by the Asian way of thinking - getting a high-paying job, buy a bungalow, drive a luxury car.

She pushes Frances so hard that I know how suffocating Frances must feel to live with her mom and listen to her endless complaints about how fat and ugly Frances' looks, how bad their current life is, how dastardly Frances' father is for abandoning them, and how Frances must get a good job so that both mother and daughter can live a better live. She abuses Frances emotionally, mentally and physically, and is very uncaring about her daughter's feelings.

I will not only recommend Bitter Melon to teenagers, who will surely be grateful for their loving, supportive parents and happy families after reading this book, but also to adults, who will understand that love should not be harsh and demanding, but rather caring and understanding.


Cara Chow's reply on my review:
Thank you so much for taking the time to read Bitter Melon and for writing such a thorough and thoughtful review! Not very many reviewers mention that, though Frances is a character that readers generally admire, she has one serious flaw: she can be a very selfish friend. My intention when writing this story was that Frances would draw a parallel between how she treats Theresa and how Gracie treats her. Both Frances and Gracie rationalize that they are doing what is best for their friend/daughter when in fact, they have self-serving intentions. This realization further motivates Frances to choose a different path so as not to become like her mother. I'm also glad that you alluded to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Coincidentally, Amy Chua's book came out just shortly after mine, so many readers and reviewers have compared the two books. That has led to a lively discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of Asian culture and parenting.
Bitter Melon
Cara Chow was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the Richmond District of San Francisco, where Bitter Melon is set. Also, Cara was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow and currently live in the Los Angeles area with her husband and son.

3 creative remarks:

Dana - Let's Book It said...

Very comprehensive review! This sounds like a YA book worth reading.

Anonymous said...

nice idea..thanks for sharing....

Anonymous said...

I chose this book as my book report for this semester and I don't regret it one bit.