Genre: YA contemporary
Pages: 309 (hardcover)
Published: December 2010 by Egmont USA
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?
I'd call this book contemporary fiction, even though it technically takes place in the 80s. Only occasionally was I reminded of the time period, and really Frances's situation-- being the daughter of a hard-working, yet brutally harsh, immigrant mother-- is far from unique to the 80s. Bitter Melon is very well-written and Frances's voice was honest and pure in a way which leaves a precise impression of her-- she's not a protagonist I'll soon be forgetting. The demeaning hardships she endures under her mother's watchful eyes and biting tongue were sometimes difficult to read, but teens' straining to meet parents' expectations, as well as the expectations of those coveted Ivy schools is a huge aspect of our lives which is underrepresented in contemp lit.
Bitter Melon introduces readers to a lot of Chinese-American culture through Frances's eyes. Her mother is a "Tiger Mom" twenty years before the phrase ever became popular-- she consistently pushes Frances to succeed in school, but her idea of greatness is limited at best. When Frances has a scheduling error and ends up in speech class instead of Calculus, she discovers a knack for public speaking and writing. Her mother has always pushed her to become a doctor-- so that she can become wealthy and one day take care of her mother, who is sick and has spent her entire life working long hours so that Frances can attend a private school. When Frances meets Derek, a (non-Chinese) boy at a Princeton Review class, she breaks another of her mother's most confining rules when she begins to secretly date him. As Frances's senior year winds down, she is faced with a huge dilemma: should she continue to obey her conniving and often abusive mother's wishes, or leave her mother to pursue her new-found dream and the boy she loves? That big question is the one author Cara Chow asks us readers as well, through Frances's well-crafted speeches and questioning of her mother's strict Confucian values which she has always respected in the past.
As an academic-achiever who often finds herself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices for the future, not to mention the ongoing crises and assignments of high school, I identified with Frances completely. The way she goes on to find her own voice is inspiring and her personal transition is really just fantastic. I loved her sorta prim best friend and cousin, Theresa, as well, but found her mother very hard to sympathize with. The woman is bordering on tyrannical! She may have given up everything for her daughter's future, but that doesn't give her the right to beat Frances over the head with a trophy she won!
Bitter Melon is a unique and beautiful read, as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking.
Cover: 5/5 (the model fits Frances's description picture-perfectly)
Overall Rating: 4.5/5