Monday, May 23, 2011

Review - "Bitter Melon"

I’m not sure what it is that appeals to me in YA literature these days.  When I actually was a young adult, I wasn’t reading typical YA fare.  There are classics in the genre that I didn’t read until I was an adult, and some notable standouts that I still haven’t read (Judy Blume, I’m looking your way).  When I was a teenager, I just wasn’t interesting in teenage things, and it wasn’t until I started running a youth/children’s department at a bookstore that I really started to look at what was being published and began to get interested.  Since then there have been books that I’ve loved, and books that I wonder how they ever got published.  Fortunately there were far more of the former than the latter.  Now that I’m a children’s librarian, YA literature isn’t a professional responsibility, but I still enjoy keeping up with what’s new.  And one title I picked up off the new books shelf was Bitter Melon by Cara Chow.

Frances Ching, a Chinese-American teenager, has her life mapped out for her: attend UC Berkley, become a doctor and help take care of her mother.  It’s her mom’s plan, and one that timid Frances has never really questioned.  That is, until a mix-up on her senior year schedule puts in her speech class instead of calculus.  Slowly, Frances realizes she has a voice, and beyond even that, she has a choice.  But how can she make choices that break her mother’s heart, after all she’s done for Frances, working long hours and sacrificing much for her daughter’s education?  Frances grows to realize that she’s suffered too, oppressed under her mother’s unrealistic expectations and sometimes cruel and unwarranted punishments.  She must learn the power of her own voice and make the tough choices that will lead her to her own life, not one that has been chosen for her.

Reading Bitten Melon was a little oppressive, and I mean that in the best possible way.  I felt all the pressure placed on Frances by her mother and her culture, and I related to her desire to make her mother happy, even when her mother seems to show no concern for her daughter’s happiness at all.  Chow does a wonderful job with the complicated emotions of Frances, and the even more complicated decisions she must make.  Frances is a likable, relatable character, as is her best friend Theresa.

It’s got to be a hard thing to portray child abuse in such a way that can still leave you feeling sympathy for the abuser.  In one scene, Frances’ mother beats her with the trophy she has earned in a speech contest, and yet still we feel for Mrs. Ching in small amounts, in the way she feels abandoned and betrayed, not only by her daughter but her way of life.  I have to wonder how much, if any, of this story, set in the late 1980s, is based on the author’s real life.  I also wonder about what a good pairing this would make with the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.  Bitter Melon is a gripping story, written with a confident hand.  I would definitely recommend it to any teenagers, or older tweens, that wander my way.

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow
2010, Egmont USA
Library copy

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