{Review} Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as emotionally invested in a book as I was in Cara Chow’s Bitter Melon.

It’s a difficult story of a Chinese-American mother and daughter living in San Francisco, yet it could be about any family where the parents do not allow their children to fly free, to find a life that will give the child joy and satisfaction. It’s about caging the soul of a beautiful mind as a battle ensues to find the sweet taste of freedom.

There are jewels of truth, of humanity, of hope and of sorrow glittering throughout this lovely book. Regardless of what touches your heart when you read, it will be found in Bitter Melon, including a beautifully-crafted story, realistic characters, a plethora of emotions, finely-tuned language.

Fei Ting, the daughter, holds two names. Fei in Chinese means fly. Ting means stop. Fei Ting tinkered with the meaning of her name, its nuances.

In Chinese, she thought, if she should try to fly, she would be stopped.

Her English name Frances means freedom. Fei Ting wants freedom, wants to soar with nothing holding her back but is held in emotional bondage to her mother. Her mother’s controls were built methodically, mooring every move and choice Francis sought to her angry mother’s dream of wealth and success via her own daughter’s efforts to satisfy her insatiable mother.

You will makes lots of money and buy us a nice house so I can quit my job and tell your father’s family to go to hell.

Frances hears such phrases over and over from her mother’s harsh lips, as if she is being beaten into submission with the strength of words,

You will become a doctor. You will support me, care for me.

Francis has always been the obedient daughter, bending to her mother’s will, to her wishes.

Imagine living the first eighteen years of your life fed by a vitriolic and hateful analysis of your qualities by your own mother. You’re not smart enough. You’re not pretty. You’re too fat. You’re ungrateful.

This is the way Frances’ mother teaches her child to achieve.

Nothing she could do would ever be good enough. Never would she be allowed to rest on her considerable success or feel pride in her achievements. Knowing that she must always struggle to please a mother who only groans and says she’s not as sweet and good as others is the reality of the life Frances lives. Yet, her mother believes criticism will force Frances to struggle and fight to achieve material success and societal respect, therefore bestowing both upon the mother who taught her to claw her way to the top.

At dinner one evening Frances states her dislike of bitter melon. Her mother looks at her with lips tight and straight like a knife stretched above her chin,

If you eat bitterness all the time, you will get used to it. Then you will like it.

Yet, wonders Frances, Confucius wrote,

Vicious as a tigress may be, she never eats her own cubs.


Frances muses that,

I continue sweeping around her in a circle, like a satellite revolving around the earth.

She feels the iron trap of her mother’s desires tightening, tightening into a struggle to breath and fly free of her mother’s plot for a life Frances does not want to live.

Then she meets a teacher, who gives Frances a new vision of what can be: Words. Speech. Standing before others and speaking her personal truth.

Frances plays her teacher’s words over and over in her mind,

Words are more powerful than things precisely because they are abstract. Words are invisible wings, medicine for the soul.

She understands that there can be other choices for her life, which begins a struggle against a lifetime of oppression. It’s painful, but Frances moves toward self reliance. Freewill pulls to break the chains that girdle her spirit and her heart.

Medicine—the career her mother’s fixed her mind on for Frances—is not what Frances wants. She knows this. Her teacher and her two friends, each in their way become her mentors, strengthening her and opening new vistas beyond a bitter taste of melon. One evening, Frances tells her mother the story of The Little Mermaid who wants to explore the human world. Ariel’s (the mermaid) father forbids her to venture beyond her own, but she braves the unknown world and lives happily ever after.

Upon hearing this story, the mother slaps her daughter, hard and across the face. Later they lay in their bunk bed, mother on the bottom and daughter on top. Francis feels alone, weak and unprotected sleeping a few feet above her mother,

…as if she is a fire and I am a roast pig being turned on a skewer above the flames.

This is the crux of the story. A child’s desire to live her life, to explore the world while a mother’s relentless drive to keep her child under her control strangles and chokes with ferocity finally alienating beyond repair. Whether it takes manipulation, theft of the daughter’s assets literally and figuratively, the mother has no compunction about what she says or does if it serves her own needs. 

Parents should read and contemplate the message Cara Chow delivers in Bitter Melon.

How often do parents bind their children unintentionally to their past dreams, rather than freeing their children to reach for their own starry future, their own visions of what can be?

{Buy Bitter Melon at Amazon | Powell’s | BN}

{Add it on Goodreads}

FNL Character Rating: Frances’ mother receives the dubious honor of a Joe McCoy rating.

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