Title: Bitter Melon
Author: Cara Chow
Publisher: Egmont USA
May Contain Spoilers
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.
I can’t imagine living Frances’ life. What a joyless, frustrating existence. Her mother wants only the best for her, but her methods of forcing her daughter to strive for perfection are cruel and abusive. Frances’ path in life has been mapped out by her mother – she’s going to get all A’s, attend Berkeley, and become a doctor. Then she can start taking care of her mother as carefully as her mother has taken care of her.
Frances’ mother is a tyrant, and she expects to be instantly obeyed in every matter. She is callous and cruel, and her verbal barbs are as painful as a physical blow. Her mother’s less than nurturing treatment had me squirming all through the book, and I was thankful that I had your normal, American upbringing. My parents encouraged me to do my best, punished me for blatantly breaking the house rules, and sat back most of the time and let me figure things out for myself. Not so for Frances. Her mother directs almost every move she makes, makes her completely miserable by disparaging her every accomplishment, and always asks for better results. Nothing pleases her, and Frances is more like a beaten dog than a daughter. Ouch.
Though I sympathized with her from the very beginning, I didn’t always like Frances. She is flawed, and her transformation into a caring, accepting young woman is a highlight of the book. Frances has no defenses against her mother’s tactics, and when we are first introduced to her, she is just as judgmental as her mother. She doesn’t know how to be a friend, how to empathize with others, how to listen and offer unbiased advice to her only friend, Theresa. As she develops the courage to stand up to her mother, she also learns what it means to be a friend. There is wonderful character development here, and all of it is convincing. Frances is forced to give herself a good, hard look in the mirror, and she when she doesn’t like what she sees, she is determined to change herself for the better.
Frances’ journey to self-discovery begins with a mistake. She thinks that she’s enrolled in Calculus, only to learn that there’s been a error made with her schedule, and Speech has been swapped for her math class. Frances is dazzled by her charismatic instructor, Ms. Taylor, and she decides to stay in the class for just a few class sessions, and then she will switch into Calc. She waits until too late, and then she isn’t allowed to change her schedule. So begins a year of lying to her mother, learning to keep secrets from her friend, and discovering the courage to be the person she wants to be. Frances has dreams, too, but she’s never had the strength to pursue them. Suddenly the world is an exciting place, and her future just may be under her control.
There has been a lot of attention given to the exacting demands of Asian mothers, thanks to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Cultural expectations for children can put a lot of pressure on both children and parents, and Bitter Melon examines this in dramatic and compelling detail. Frances’ mother believed that everything she did was for her daughter’s benefit, and that it was her duty as a mother to push, to kneed, to shape her child into the mold of her choosing. Accepting anything less than perfection was just not in Frances’ best interests. In her zeal for Frances to succeed, there is no room for comfort, or gentleness, or affection. I am so glad that is not how I was raised.
Review copy provided by publisher