Cara Chow's Bitter Melon

Cara Chow's young adult novel, Bitter Melon (Egmont, 2011; Brilliance Audio, 2011), tells the story of Frances Ching, only daughter of a single mother in San Francisco's Richmond district. I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, narrated by Nancy Wu. (I'll be posting reviews in the near future of more audiobooks I've been listening to the last half year.)

Bitter Melon is a harrowing story of how Frances is kept under the thumb of her bat-shit crazy mother, who takes tiger mothering beyond the relentless driving of her daughter to academic excellence into the realm of outright paranoiac fantasy. The mother expects Frances to go to UC Berkeley and then to med school to become a doctor and take care of her physically and financially in the future. She does everything possible to curtail her daughter's independence (socially, financially, academically, etc.), micromanaging everything about her life.

The story, of course, is about how Frances fights to find her own true self. Instead of taking AP Calculus in her senior year as her mother expects (because Calculus will help her get into Berkeley), she ends up in speech by accident but then decides not to change her schedule and not to tell her mother. This one decision, spurred by the charisma of her speech teacher Ms. Taylor, leads her down the path of rebellion and lies.

While the novel clearly carves out the usual narrative of teenage rebellion and coming to a sense of independence about the self, it does so in the specific context of Chinese American life in San Francisco in an immigrant family. Like the tiger mother narrative more broadly, I find Bitter Melon to be a little too reliant on reductive notions of culture (it's all because of Confucianism, according to Frances in the speech she writes and gives at competitions throughout the year).

I tend to prefer mother-daughter, immigrant family narratives that explore the complex ways that immigration (often as a result of war) is a kind of trauma that leads to strange figurations of family and society (Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is a classic example, of course, but another excellent example is Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge). Ultimately, Bitter Melon settles on a weird kind of apologia for the tiger mother mentality and upbringing, reconciling it with a triumphalist narrative of American independence. In this instance, there is also a romance narrative with Frances falling for a tall blond boy who drives a luxury car his parents bought for him on his 16th birthday, and his name apparently has a not just a Jr. suffix but a III in a nod to his establishment family of lawyers who all went to Harvard. That story is in itself troubling for many different reasons.

The audiobook version of this novel was solid, with Nancy Wu doing an accented voice for the mother. The novel also has many, many terms in Chinese (which Frances defines for the reader in the narrative), which is something that an audiobook version can provide a different experience of for non-Chinese speaking readers.
  • Current Mood: bored bored
this one has been on my to-read list for a very long time; glad to see it reviewed here! THANK YOU