Bitter Melon by Cara Chow


Frances world in one filled with strict tradition (and not the fun Fiddler on the Roof kind….).  Although she is 17 and her and her mother live in a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco, you would swear that they still live in China.  Frances’s mother has had a hard life… after moving to the States, Frances’s father soon left the family.  The easier thing to do would have been to return to China, but Frances’s mother instead works two jobs to maintain her household.  She also holds her daughter to some pretty strict rules:

  1. No extra curricular activities or socializing …. free time is to be used for studying
  2. Frances WILL get better grades than her cousin and Frances WILL be a doctor and support her mother
  3. Frances owns nothing… everything is her mothers
  4. No boys. 

On top of the rules, Frances is constantly being told that her size 8 body is fat, her face chunky, no boy will ever give her a second look, she is lazy and unhelpful to her mom, and her straight A’s in school are still not as good as her cousins GPA, so apparently she is a little stupid too.  She is also constantly reminded how much time and money has been put into her schooling.

When Francis mistakenly shows up in a Speech class instead of her assigned calculus, she is amazed at her knack for speaking, and so is the teacher.  When Frances tries to correct the class mishap, the teacher encourages her to continue with speech and enter competitions, where Frances soon discovers she has a gift she was unaware of.

Of course to Frances’ mom, this is a huge waste of time until she thinks Frances may be able to be famous and on tv… then once again, Frances is told what to eat to lose weight, and what she needs to do to become who her mother expects her to become.

As the pressure continues to build and a boy starts to pay attention to her Frances is about to put tradition to a rest… but at what cost?

Cara Chow signing books

Ok…. first off.  If you have this book in book format that is wonderful.  Now…. put it down.  Keep it, you want it… you really do, but if you have a chance to pick this one up on audio, I encourage you to go that route.

Why audio?

Nancy Wu is a narrator to be savored.  She masterfully and distinctly manages to narrate through the different voices of Frances, her mother, Theresa, her aunt, the teacher and even the boy interest so well I always knew who was talking.  With Nancy’s own heritage, the book reads authentic and I adored it when Chinese words were used and explained.  This book was an absolute joy to listen to.

So why hang on to the book then?

My only grumble about audio is I can not flip a page back to look at a word I am unfamiliar with, practice it, look up the definition, and then let it roll off my own tongue.  In this case, when a Chinese phrase was used it was beautifully said and while driving I would repeat it to myself, but as the audio went on and I had no way to write down what I had just heard, it gets lost.  (With the book, which I have, I was able to go back and try those words again…. )

Bitter Melon is a book that will rock you emotionally.  In the synopsis you can see that Frances’ mom is not an easy-going mother who has a plate of cookies on the table when you come home and flips excitedly through college brochures with you.  Nope.  Instead, this woman is strict beyond strict.  (Have you ever seen the movie Mommy Dearest?) And while I wanted to take this woman aside and give her a taste of her own medicine… as the book goes on you will see that as much as Frances hates the way her mother controls her, Frances does the same thing to her cousin…. and then…. I am frustrated with her too.

Imagine having all your choices made for you… where you will attend college…. what you will be when you grow up, where you will live, how you will act, and who you will marry.  Imagine that this is normal in your culture.  Family comes above all else and you always obey and never come up with your own opinions.

This audio really is incredible.  It is hard to put into words how this one made me feel.  The story line was enjoyable and I wanted to know what was going to happen next.  In the end… I was pleased… and then saddened… and in the end… I think Frances was too.

Looking for a book/audio that is a cultural experience?  I would recommend this one.  I finished this audio and zipped to Amazon to see if there was another book centered around these characters…. sadly there is not and no sign that there will be…. but the way it ends… I can see where there could be.

Amazon Rating

Goodreads Review

I picked up this audio from my lovely local library…

10 thoughts on “Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

  1. I recently picked up this on audio from the library but one of the discs was unplayable! Then I happened to see your review, and that it’s fantastic. I’ll try to find it at another library.

    I enjoy reading about different cultures and this sounds like a fabulous read. That mom sounds pretty tough though. And she’s like Mommy Dearest? Oh no.

    That’s lucky you had the book on hand to reference some of the terms. Great review!

  2. I have seen this one at my library sale two months in a row and not picked it up. Now that I’ve read your review, if I luck up on it again, I will definitely pick it up. Thanks for the insightful review.

    I know that I have been majorly MIA in the past couple of months. I’m trying to get back into the swing of visiting blogs again. I hope all is well with you and yours. 🙂

  3. I’ve had this on my WL for a while… It sounds really good and impactful. I felt a little sick and anxious reading your description because I had similar (though milder) version of that growing up. But in order to really like this book I think I need to know that the girl grows and overcomes in the end…!! I will def do audio for this one though. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. And now I want to re-read Bitter Melon! I read it as an ARC last year and fell in love and hated Frances’s mother and saw how her mother’s behavior was passed down to her. And then after reading I was tempted to read that Tiger Mother book that was such a huge deal at the time, but never did.

    What a fantastic review, Sheila!

    1. Thanks April – the audio had me angry and all worked up. AND when Frances acted selfishly (often it seems) I was disgusted with her too. But as you know – the book/audio is fantastic and worth the emotions 😉

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