Release Date: December 28th, 2010
Age Group: Young Adult
Recommended For: Readers who enjoyed American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
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 was indeed a hard book to swallow. Coming from my own home where my mom and dad are constantly yakity yak yakking about my education and how I'm going to end up cleaning toilets for the rest of my life, (but don't think that people who clean toilets are dumb, please!) Bitter Melon rose to the occasion and seemed the perfect kind of thing to enlighten people of Western heritage with a nice explanation of what Tiger Parenting is like from the child's point of view. Believe me, I've been waiting for this book for a long, long, long, long, long, long (multiple by googol) time.
But Bitter Melon fell flat from my expectations.
One of the first things that rather bothered me was the constant mention of things like this: "I did better than Theresa. Why is she getting most of the attention?" (pg.178) It may not be intentional, but this just annoyed the HECK out of me. Of course, Frances has been raised in the environment where jealousy is only common because you are always trying to be better than the person better at something than you. However, the constant whining kept me tearing my hair out at what an otherwise very likable character Frances would have been if she just stepped down her high pedestal for a moment. Throughout the book, Frances pressures her friend Theresa to do things she doesn't want to, convinces her to not to pursue a love interest (because, hey, she's upset because she doesn't have a boyfriend!) and always talks about how great she is at speech and other academics when she doesn't really supply any evidence.
As the book drew on, I got more and more upset at how polarized Chow had developed the differences between Frances and her mother. What I managed to get from the book when I finished reading it was that Frances was totally the good guy and that her mother was totally the bad guy. This totally misses the nuances, I think, of Chinese culture. Yes, sometimes, Tiger Parenting is sometimes harsh and even extreme. But that doesn't change that Frances' mother is her mother. At times, I felt exhausted by how many times that Frances feels the need to tell us that her mother's actions are unjust and hateful. Sometimes, I wanted a break where mother and daughter were loving in each other's company. Moments like these in the book were few and far in between.
Other sour notes were the brief romance and the time period that Chow writes this in. Derek and Frances, I thought, was a sweet addition to the story, but a highly unrealistic one. It was hard for me to believe in, and I thought that if the relationship between the two were developed more instead of the almost insta-love that it was portrayed as, I would've even enjoyed the book more as a whole. Making the story take place in the 1980's in San Francisco, I thought, didn't add a lot to the story and produced abnormal mentions of Aqua Net hairspray.
Overall, I thought this was a bit of a dramatic representation of tiger parenting. Not to say that Frances' story is not worthwhile. Her struggles in a Chinese home is heartfelt and sometimes appalling, but I feel that Chow misses some of the deeper notes associated with this culture and makes for a very one-sided read.