Monday, June 20, 2011

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow — 320 pgs

Bitter MelonFor Frances, a young Chinese-American girl who lives in a dilapidated apartment with her mother, the pressure to succeed and fulfill her mother’s dreams for her is almost too much to bear. Though Frances is an excellent student, her mother is constantly pushing her to more and more rigorous feats of academics, hoping that one day Frances will become a doctor and take care of her financially. But though her mother is ostensibly looking out for Frances’ welfare, she can be very abusive and demeaning. At times, it’s all Frances can do not to give up when her mother repeatedly attacks her, both physically and emotionally. When a mistake is made with Frances’ schedule during senior year, she finds herself taking a speech class instead of the calculus class she needs to get into Berkley. Frances decides to remain in the class, and finds the class and its related competitions are the one safe haven for a girl who is trying to make her way against the heavy strictures of her mother. Soon Frances is lying and enlisting the help of her best friend to hide the fact that she’s competing in speech tournaments. Will Frances ever be free of her manipulative and cruel mother, or will she eventually bend and succumb to forces that seem stronger and stronger everyday? In this stunning and perceptive work of fiction, Cara Chow brings us the life of girl who’s desperate to escape the power of her all-consuming and abusive mother, and shares the triumphs and defeats she faces on her journey towards freedom.

When I was initially pitched this book, the publicist mentioned the story had a lot in common with that very controversial non-fiction work, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Though I haven’t read the book, I’ve certainly read about the controversy it sparked, and found that this book did indeed have a lot of the same hallmarks as Battle Hymn. It was a tough read, and while at first I didn’t see the problem with the behavior of Frances’ mother, her misbehavior grew exponentially until I could no longer stand her and I was desperate to see Frances free herself of her mother’s poisonous influence.

Part of the reason Frances wasn’t able to defend herself against her mother’s tirades and abuse was because she had been instilled with a sense of family loyalty, and because her mother touted the belief that she should always be honored, respected and obeyed. It was hard for Frances to believe her mother didn’t have her best interest at heart, and the constant put-downs and debasement had a very negative effect on her self esteem. I couldn’t believe her mother was so nasty and caustic when it came to belittling her daughter and I found it repugnant that her sole motivation for pushing Frances into medical school was her own self-interest. When Frances begins to strike out on her own, her mother seems to always be one step ahead of her and soon discovers that Frances isn’t following the directions that have been set for her. This leads to more acrimonious abuse and name calling, and I began to despair for Frances and the horrible life she had to lead. Another component of the problem was that Frances and her mother were isolated from most of the community and had very little outside influence with which to temper themselves. Shutting out the rest of society, Frances’ mother kept her alienated and afraid, unable to go to anyone for the help she so desperately needed.

When Frances breaks out of her shell and begins to compete in speech competitions, she really begins to flower, both emotionally and socially, but all her advancements must be hidden from her jealous and controlling mother. As she becomes more and more enveloped in speech, she’s mentored by a teacher who cares for her and encourages her, giving Frances a sense of self worth that even her mother can’t take away. Eventually, of course, there is a showdown, and Frances’ mother becomes not only violent and abusive but painfully self-serving and controlling. It’s up to Frances to break away from her mother and into the kind of life she wants to lead, and though she’s only spreading her wings into adulthood, her mother mistakes her independence for betrayal. As Frances steps away from her mother’s influence, I cheered for her and got completely invested in her struggle to be free from the oppression that her mother so diligently presses upon her. It’s the journey from battered and abused child to free young woman that captivated me and kept me turning the pages.

I’m not sure this book directly parallels Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because where one speaks of control and subservience in the mother/child relationship, the other speaks of unspeakable cruelty and abuse committed in a relationship that is in some ways supposed to be sacred. The book did remind me a little bit of Girl In Translation because both dealt with the relationship between a Chinese mother and daughter, and both highlighted the fallout caused by high academic and social expectations perpetrated by Chinese mothers. Girl in Translation differs because it didn’t feature abuse and manipulation on the maternal side, and I found that by introducing this concept into the story, the emotional component was heightened by several degrees. Though it was an uncomfortable story to read, it was realistic and at times very angering.



This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

17 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think reading about an all-consuming and abusive mother would not be an entertaining read for me! Thanks for the thorough review!

TheBookGirl said...

Wow, you have been reading some serious stuff lately; are you going to give yourself a happy break soon?, lol.

Seriously, this sounds like quite an emotional read. It makes me wonder if there might be a semi-autobiographical aspect to it...
I started to read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but got so frustrated by the author's tone within the first thirty or so pages, that I stopped reading -- something that's pretty unusual for me. Oddly enough, I think I might be able to read this one more easily because it is fiction, and unlike Battle Hymn, I gather that it is written in the daughter's voice, or at least from her perspective.

Wonderful review as always :)

Amy said...

Sounds like a tough book to read. The abusive mother sounds different from what I've heard of Battle Hymn, but I haven't read it either so don't know :)

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

This sounds like a very hard book to read. I know that, world wide, relationships are very hard between mothers and daughters, no matter the circumstance. Still it's so much harder to read about such ties gone wrong especially when it ends in such manipulation and self-serving cruelty. Hard to read, I'm sure but interesting, too.

Kay said...

I do think that it's tough to read books such as this one seems. You probably want to storm into the book and change things or take the girl away to protect her. I'm intrigued and so will put this on my wish list. I'd have to be in the right mood for it though. Good job on the review to make it appealing yet informative.

Darlene said...

I have to agree with BookGirl, you really have been reading some heavy stuff lately. You are definitely going to need something light and airy soon. That being said this book sounds like something I would really like. I like these mother/daughter type stories.

bermudaonion said...

As I was reading your description, I was thinking of Battle Hymn, a book I haven't read yet either. I think some of the issues in this book have to do with culture clash - what we consider abusive, other societies don't. The book sounds very emotional.

Suko said...

Zibilee, this book sounds quite intense. Wonderful, descriptive review, as usual.

celawerdblog said...

Sounds like an interesting read. I'll look forward to it.

Jenners said...

Sounds like a book that makes you appreciate your own mother and childhood. I'm very curious about the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and hope to get around to reading it at some point this year.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Whoa.... this on my shelf... sure of it. Must find it...

Sarah Norman said...

Oh gosh, that sounds awful. I can't bear books where you are just waiting for someone to rise up! I find it stressful, which is very silly I suppose. Have you read FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES? It has a somewhat similar theme ..

nomadreader said...

This one sounds really interesting to me. I was content reading the news coverage of Tiger Mom instead of the actual book, but I'm always more interested in novels:-) I still need to read Girl in Translation though. Great review!

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Culture clash is one of the most common elements in stereotypes, as we all know. While Tiger Mother reflects a story that can be viewed as horrible for a young child to have to live up to, listening to the author in interviews, and the subtitle of the book alone is enough to convince me that there was more to that book than just the controversy. Too bad that it was pitched to you as a similarity to Bitter Melon which sounds like quite the opposite, and sounds like a tough, tough read. I'd be interested to read it, and your discussion of it does pique my interest.

Geosi said...

This may not linger well for me although I would still be curious to read about the abusive mother.

Jenny said...

Oh wow... I realllly have been wanting to read this book but it sounds much more difficult of a read than I realized. I still do want to read it but I wish there were more of a redemption for the mother where she gained some insight... of course I don't know she doesn't but it sounds like she might not. Ah, sounds like a rough read but I'm still interested, LOL!

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I enjoyed this, despite the harsh reality. I had a few cringing moments.

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