Review for Bitter Melon by Cara Chow


Trigger/Content Warning: mentions and descriptions of abuse

My Summary: Due to a schedule error, Frances Ching ends up in a speech class instead of the calculus class she was supposed to take. Despite knowing that her mother will disapprove, she ends up joining the competitive speech team, ditching her Princeton Review course to participate. All of a sudden, she is sneaking around behind her mother’s back to do the things she’s not allowed to do. However, she can’t keep everything a secret forever, so her mother finds out. Eventually, she must make a decision between being the obedient daughter and becoming independent.


Though at first glance this book may seem like a book about rebelling against the stereotypical Chinese “tiger mom,” it’s actually about a girl struggling under the tyranny of an abusive mother. Frances isn’t just placed under strict rules, she is constantly belittled, manipulated, isolated, starved, and, in one case, physically beaten. Her life is ruled by fear of her mother’s backlash.

For a long time, Frances does not see the abuse for what it is because her mother has told her that she owes everything to her mother, her mother has sacrificed so much for her, and everything her mother does is supposedly for her own good, even when it hurts Frances and tears her down. When Frances accomplishes something, her mother offers no praise, only criticism of her faults.When other people compliment Frances, her mother accuses them of lying or being too generous. She lies, hides things, and destroys or takes away means of escape to keep Frances under her thumb. She treats Frances as an extension of herself and a tool for her own reputation and benefit.

It’s particularly difficult for Frances to escape the abuse or get help because the book takes place in 1989, before technology like the Internet and smartphones made remote communication and access to information convenient. All she has is a single landline phone through which her mother can and does intercept calls for her.

Through her interactions with her speech class teacher and a friend/crush from her Princeton Review class, Frances begins to build herself back up from years of being beaten down. She starts to question the worldview that her mother has manipulated her into adopting and look for a way out of her cage. Through her speech competitions, she comes to understand the power of words, and how her mother has wielded words against her.

This book is not an easy read, emotionally speaking. You are made to feel every ounce of Frances’s fear, guilt, shame, and despair. Thankfully, there are positive things to balance it out: pride, joy, relief, and triumph. The story is dark, but it isn’t a tragedy. The ultimate message it projects is one of hope.

I feel like this book is very important because a lot of abuse in Asian American families flies under the radar, written off as “cultural differences.” Frances’s relationship with her mother is contrasted with that of her fellow Chinese American friend, Theresa, whose mother is not abusive. When Frances brings up the abusive behaviors to other Chinese people in her community, they are shocked and horrified. Though cultural norms may enable abuse and violence (think about how American cultural norms tend to encourage the victim-blaming of assault survivors, for example), there are no cultures where every single person/parent is abusive, and the idea that a culture is inherently oppressive is a biased judgment relying on essentialism that homogenizes people of a culture and strips of them of their individuality and agency.

Recommendation: This book was an engaging and emotionally evocative read with a message of empowerment, so I’d recommend it to anyone.

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