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. (from Amazon)
So: Bitter Melon. There’s been some drama about this book, mostly because I think it came out around the same time as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and people were kind of like “ANOTHER book about an obsessive Chinese mother?”
Well, yeah. But it’s more a book about an abusive Chinese mother, about the clashes between Eastern and Western cultures, and about finding your own voice. It’s a little hokey in some places, Frances’ cousin is also pretty boring, with boring (and fake-sounding) dialogue to match, and I have no idea why it’s set in the 1980s, except to cut out cell phones and computers (which would have made the plot go in entirely different directions), but I liked it. I think I was in that rare mood where I wanted to read something depressing and sad, and that’s this book. (It did get happier at the end, of course.)
I can see why some people are upset with Bitter Melon, because it’s kinda disappointing to have ANOTHER book that’s basically repeating all the stereotypes, cliches, and exoticism of Asian societies that’s been in, like, almost every other book with an Asian character in it since the 1970s. But I nevertheless liked Bitter Melon because it seemed to be more about the effects of emotional and verbal abuse than the effects of “extreme Chinese parenting.” You know what I mean? It was Gracie, Frances’ mom, that was the problem, not Chinese culture.
Frances, meanwhile, was a pretty brilliant heroine. She knew where her mother was coming from (although I don’t think she realized that her mother had issues) and why she wanted Frances to succeed so badly, but Frances also knew that if she was to be happy she’d have to figure out her own path. Bitter Melon is her working through the problems between herself and her mother, and of Frances finding her own perspective in things.
Being the kid of an immigrant is tough, especially if the culture your parents came from isn’t entirely the culture you yourself are a part of. It’s also difficult being a parent (even without the mental problems Gracie had), and Bitter Melon shows off both sides of the issue pretty brilliantly. It’s a story that may have been done before (a LOT), but it’s (probably) still an important story to tell.
I think you do need to be in the right mood for such a book, though, because it IS very much like a Lifetime movie (“My Mother Beats Me With My Trophies”) in the almost OVER-emotional narrative aspect. But overall? I liked it.
Read: February 11, 2011
This review was hard to write, yo. I feel like I’m stepping on toes, or that I’ve (inadvertently) offended someone. I don’t know why? But it was totally stressful, this review.
There’s going to be a blog tour of Bitter Melon starting March 3rd! I didn’t know that before I started writing my review, and I’m not a part of it, but…yeah.
This interview with the author is really good, btw.