Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon

Achingly painful, heartbreakingly sad, yet full of youthful promise and resilience, Cara Chow's Bitter Melon tells the anguished story of Frances and her Chinese born mother who berates and belittles her not only in private but in front of family members, teachers, and strangers. Her mother has perfected the "guilt trip" into high drama and reminds Frances daily that everything she's done: coming from Hong Kong, learning English, working four jobs, working overtime, suffering poor health, and overseeing every move her teen daughter makes is for her own good.

Frances is, of course, a teen-ager. She wants some privacy and some space. When calculus is left off her school schedule, Frances attends the speech class on her schedule. Pretty soon, she finds out that she enjoys the class and likes the hippie-like teacher Ms. Taylor. Ms. Taylor encourages Frances to stay in speech because colleges Berkeley and Stanford are looking for students who have extra-curricular activities like speech tournaments on their applications.

Frances attends her first meet and wins third place, but she's been lying to her mother to attend practices. Her cousin Theresa has been covering for her, too, saying that they are studying for calculus. Frances likes Derek, a boy from another school who competes in the tournaments. He exchanges phone numbers with her and even gives her a ride home in his new BMW--Frances is careful to get dropped off two blocks away so that her mother won't see her with a boy. When Frances's third place trophy is discovered by Nellie (Theresa's mother), her mother is outraged and goes ballistic. She threatens her, yells at her, curses at her and beats her with the trophy. Readers will empathize with Frances who cowers and begs her mother, apologizing profusely as her mother continues to beat her.

Later, her mother attends her speech tournament after Ms. Taylor invites her and tells her that colleges like to see speech as an elective. Frances is plotting her escape; she sends an application to Scripps, never telling her mother that her heart is not in becoming a doctor. When Berkley turns her down, Frances gets accepted to Scripps.

Lies build upon more lies. Frances sneaks out to the prom with Derek, realizing she can't go home because she told her mother that she was spending the night with Theresa. Of course, Frances's mother finds a way to catch her in more lies.

Later, Frances takes a job and banks her checks, determined to escape her mother's iron will. Frances buys a plane ticket intending to leave without saying good-bye, but once again is thwarted by her over-zealous mother. Her mother closes her bank account and steals her plane ticket.

Frances and her mother have one final terrible argument and Frances leaves; her mother is crushed. Teens may cheer the fact that Frances fights with her mother and stands up to her; but, others may feel sorry for her mother--all her dreams are dashed and she has lost her daughter, possibly forever.

Frances finds her voice and embraces freedom in Ontario working at the university. Although estranged, the story ends on a high note and the reader hopes that Frances and her mother will make peace.

Recommended grades 7-up.

Note:  The mother calls Frances a slut after she is out all night with Derek; nothing happened. They drove around all night and had breakfast. No sex. Child abuse-her mother could be called abusive but in her mind, she is punishing her child and does what is necessary to have an obedient daughter worthy of her praise.  309 pages  Ages 12 and up

Recommended by Pamela Thompson, Librarian, Texas USA

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