Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow (ARC) 2010
Egmont USA

Rating: 4/5

IQ "School is supposed to be a place of achievement. We work hard to get the highest grades. We join sports, academic decathlon, and speech, and we compete to win. Later we compete to get the best jobs and earn the highest incomes. We are always striving to be number one. There's only one problem with this model. Not everyone can win. In every competition there has to be a loser." Frances pg. 176 (from a speech she gives)

Frances is going to attend Berkley and become a doctor. Then she will become very rich and be able to take care of her doting mother. Or at least, that's what her mother wants. Frances isn't sure what she wants but she's starting to realize that she doesn't want to be a doctor. With the help of speech class (which she wasn't supposed to take, she should be in calculus) Frances realizes she's pretty good at public speaking. Her mother would disapprove of speech class but since Frances keeps it a secret (her mother wants her to be in calculus), she is able to enjoy something that makes Frances happy, and not just her mother. Of course, Frances' secrets can't stay hidden forever, now when there's competitions involved and a boy and a change in college plans...

I'm not entirely sure why the book is set in the '80s. It makes the seem semi-autobiographical (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), although the '80s environment does make the actions of Frances' mother even more stifling. There's no easy way for Frances to get away, no Internet or cell phone to help her escape, even if only for a little while. I was skeptical of the sudden friendship with Theresa. France dismisses Theresa (rather unjustly it would seem) and then all of a sudden they become friends. It's a startling friendship because it's not one I saw coming and I guess it was more a friendship out of necessity, Frances' mother and Theresa's mother are friends so the girls decide to become friends too. The prologue was completely unnecessary. I think it should have just been incorporated into the story because it didn't add any extra depth to the story (or at least to my understanding of the story). The epilogue I'm a little more forgiving of but I wish the story had been closed in a tidier manner, thus making the epilogue unnecessary. The book also tries to address issues of class but it leaves those questions unanswered.

I admit after I did a WoW post for this book, I began to grow afraid that it would fall into the same old 'hard-working immigrant parent just doesn't understand their child'. Yes Frances' mother doesn't understand, nor does she want to try to understand Frances but it's not always clear that love is at the root of all that she does. This is an unusual book in that it details not only physical abuse (and the physical abuse isn't as bad as I've read in other books, Frances' mother slaps her around but thankfully, it never got worse than that) but verbal abuse. Verbal abuse may not leave physical scars, but readers start to notice that all the insults Frances' mother hurls at her are hitting their target and leaving a mark on Frances. Her mother tells Frances that she's fat and stops making her lunch, Frances accepts that she's fat and becomes listless. So on and so forth. To make matters worse, there is no easy way for Frances to escape. She shares a bedroom with her mother and is wholly dependent on her (her mother won't show her how to open a checking account or do anything else that she needs to learn in preparation for college), her mother searches her mail, and there's only one landline so her mother can intercept Frances' calls too. It takes overbearing to a whole new level and I admire Frances for not having a complete and total breakdown. I also admire the author for talking about this subject because while verbal abuse may not seem as bad as physical abuse, it can have damaging results (suicide, depression, etc.)

Bitter Melon delivers a poignant tale of verbal abuse. How much should we take when it's from someone we love? Especially since Frances is raised by her single mom and she feels that she owes her mom (her mother is constantly reminding her of all that she sacrifices on Frances' behalf). I could not put this book down as Frances' mother bore down more and more on Frances and I waited for Frances to reach her breaking point. There's no dramatic moment like I anticipated, but that wouldn't have worked with Frances' personality anyway. I also liked that the book explored friendships of convenience and how that whole matter was resolved. I almost wish the book had been set in the present day because the '80s didn't add anything extra to the book except for mentions of cassettes, President George H. W. Bush and Frances attending an all girls school. I really enjoyed the peek at speech competitions and I'm glad that speech did not immediately help Frances 'find her voice' (which I had thought would happen but I'm happy I was wrong). Just because you find your voice doesn't mean people will listen, you have to learn how to use it effectively and that's one of the crucial parts of the story.

Disclosure: Requested for review and I'm happy I did :) Thank you Egmont!

PS This quote goes in-hand with the Incredible Quote at the top of the review, "But our success should not be measured only by test scores, college attendance, or annual income. My mother would not be seen by most as successful. She is not featured in Forbes or Fortune. But where would the suited figures on the covers be without workers like her? Where would our heroes be had they not had parents to guide them?" (pg. 174)


  1. Completely agree about the '80s setting! It added a few things to the story (like the earthquake), but I don't think it was absolutely essential that the story take place in the past, either.

    I had the same worries about the book as you (actually, my fear was that it'd be a YA Joy Luck Club), but I actually liked it more than I thought I would. Though I still have some issues with it.

  2. ^ Trisha, I was actually worried about the same thing too, that it would be a YA Joy Luck Club. Still not sure if I want to read this or not--I'm not so good with historical fiction, and verbal abuse? Yikes! I need to deal with that in my real life first before I can delve back into it in fiction, haha. But a good review, and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Okay, my issues probably fall more on the side of personal dislikes. I'm trying to untangle them from the book itself before I write my review. I do think Chow is a talented writer and was able to elevate a storyline containing elements I typically can't stand because of her writing. And maybe I shouldn't have used the word "like" earlier, because I didn't truly like it in an, um, affectionate? pleasurable reading experience? kind of way. Rather, I felt more empathy than I thought I would, and I found it easier to become engaged with this book than, say, An Na's first two books.

  4. @Trisha-Right, I was disappointed at the lack of '80s feel. Ah yes I forgot to mention the earthquake, I figured it was a more common thing since it was California. I'm glad you cleared that up.

    I also forgot to mention that I had an issue with how Theresa only had a life in relation to Frances. I kept wondering where her father was and why the two mothers were friends. It definitely wasn't a pleasurable reading experience but I connected with it on a really deep level.

    Wait For Me by An Na is not a book I really liked, The Fold was decent (not sure if those are her first two).

    @Steph Su-It is not (to me) a YA Joy Luck Club but I read that book 2 years ago so I may be hazy on the details. I honestly wouldn't call this historical fiction. It just seems weird to call stuff in the '80s historical fiction but I guess it is. But there really are no crucial historical elements. The verbal abuse is intense though. I hope you can sort it out, abuse of any kind sucks and that's all I can really say.

  5. I think the main reason Chow set the book in the 80's is because there really was an article in Time Magazine called "Asian American Wiz Kids" http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19870831,00.html
    It made a big impact on the Asian American community (for better or for worse) and because of that I can see why it was such a significant part of Frances' speech. I did wonder at times whether Chow set it in the 80's just so she could use this reference.

    Just a random tidbit, the boy in the blue shirt and backpack all the way to the left is Masi Oka, the actor who portrayed Hiro on the TV show Heroes.


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