Bitter Melon: A Book Review

A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, made a big splash in the media and of course in social media circles. This is the story of a Chinese mother, Amy Chua, who claims that Chinese mothers are superior and lays out her reasons why. I read the article and found it fascinating because I have friends raised in a similar culture, and I’ve seen the damage that can be done by this type of parenting. There is no doubt this culture rears extremely successful individuals, but at what cost?

Not to say that I don’t agree that Western mothers are far too indulgent — we are, as a whole. Our children are coddled, they don’t have nearly enough responsibility, and we are more often concerned with building self esteem than character. Those of us who err too far to this side of the parenting spectrum aren’t doing our children any favors either. Somewhere there has to be a happy medium, but that’s not what this post is about.

Soon after that article came out, I was asked to review the novel, Bitter Melon, by Chinese-American author Cara Chow.

In Bitter Melon, Chow tackles the very same issues raised in the article but presents the story from the child’s perspective.

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 get into Berkeley to become a doctor. 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. ($16.99, Ages 12 up)

It’s a quick, easy read. I read most of it on a plane ride from here to Nashville and back. The story definitely kept my attention, it is told in first person so you really get into the character’s head. I felt her fear and angst and triumph, and it kept me engaged right to the bitter end. Ha, no pun intended.

The age recommendation is 12 and up, but parts of it may be intense for a 12-year-old. I found it to be an upsetting but enlightening peek into a culture that puts way more emphasis on performance than relationship. The interesting thing is, I have no doubt the mother loved her daughter and felt she was doing what was best for her. She sacrificed everything so her daughter could have a chance at a better future. But in the process, she almost lost her daughter.

This is a fictional work, but it reads like it’s a true story and I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t. However, Chow describes the story as coming from a personal place, and I expect there is more reality than fiction within its pages.

The characters are well developed and lovable yet not without flaws. I particularly love Nellie, Frances’s mother’s best friend. She is hilarious, and she gives a different face to the Chinese-American mother. I think it was wise to place her in the story and give a slightly different perspective on motherhood within this culture.

If you’re looking for a book to add to your summer reading list, try Bitter Melon by Cara Chow. Let me know how you like it!

Disclosure: I was sent a hard cover copy of Bitter Melon to facilitate this review.