Monday, 14 May 2012

Audiobook Review: Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

First released: 28th December 2010
By: Brilliance Audio

Audiobook length: 9 hrs and 28 mins
Narrator: Nancy Wu

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 go to Med school. But is being a doctor what she wants? 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. Does she dare to challenge the mother who has sacrificed everything for her? 

My review:

I loved this so much. Before anything else, I have to praise to the skies Nancy Wu's narration. She gave each of the characters voices that were distinct and real and full of emotion. The voice she gives to Frances' mother is amazing and pitch perfect - not just with her Cantonese accent, but with the bitterness and scorn and manipulation and spite that is dripping from every word she says. While listening to Bitter Melon, I felt very emotionally connected to what Frances was going through and a large part of that was because of Wu's skill at bringing the characters to vivid life. Wu is on my list of favourite narrators now.

Bitter Melon is set in 1989 and tells the story of Frances' final year at high school. Frances lives with her single mother, in a small, cramped apartment in San Francisco. Her mother works long hours and sacrifices much so that Frances can have a good education - but she expects something in return: Frances is supposed to devote her life to her mother's wishes by becoming a doctor, and the idea that Frances might have dreams of her own is something her mother never even considers. All this might be bearable if Frances and her mother had a close, supportive relationship. But instead her mother criticises Frances relentlessly, denies her any freedom and even beats her.

The mother-daughter relationship is the crux of the novel and it is fascinating. Her mother's main ambition for Frances (that she be hard-working and successful) is not problematic, but the way she goes about it definitely is. The conversations between the two, where the mother is doing everything she can to erode Frances' confidence are full of "Did she really just say that?!" moments and I was so gripped. Even though Bitter Melon is a coming of age tale, it took me through as many different emotions as an action-adventure novel: fear, excitement, hope, crushing disappointment, then hope again. When Frances starts lying to her mother about what she's really doing, I was so tense, just so afraid of what would happen if she got caught. And when she is caught...oh my God. The ending is particularly nail-biting stuff, as the new life Frances has started to make for herself begins to unravel - nothing could have made me put down Bitter Melon at that moment.

I've already given love to the narration, but I also wouldn't have been so emotionally connected to the characters if Cara Chow had not made them three-dimensional and relatable. You feel for Frances, but she's not perfect and she's partly to blame for her own downfall. The mother is awful, but I did feel some pity for her, knowing her past - and her future if she drives Frances away. The relationship between the two of them is contrasted with another mother-daughter pair, Frances' best friend, Theresa and her mother, Nelly. These two are awesome and while it's sad for Frances to see what she will never have, Nelly and Theresa gave me something to smile about in Bitter Melon.

The only character who feels unrealistic is Frances' love interest, Derek. She meets him at a speech competition and he is rich, intelligent, popular and gorgeous as well. And unfortunately, I don't believe rich, popular guys are passing over pretty cheerleaders for chubby, plain girls in dated clothes, whose mothers hang up the phone when they try to call. Derek's scenes with Frances are sweet, but they feel more like a fantasy wish fulfillment for the character, than anything that would really happen to a girl like Frances. 

All in all, I was a huge fan of Bitter Melon. So much so, that I went looking for more from the author and was disappointed that she hasn't written another novel yet. Bitter Melon is largely autobiographical, so I hope Chow has more stories in her - I definitely want to read them.

Rating: 4.5 stars


  1. This reminds me of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan which I adored. She was also dealing with Chinese mother/daughter issues. I'll make sure to check this one out!

    1. Yes, I've heard it compared to that book before. I haven't read it, but I definitely want to.

  2. First -- I really need to listen to something narrated by Nancy Wu, my friend Pam listened to Eon and Eona which I guess she narrated and was a huge fan.

    Second--I loved Bitter Melon! Although, I read it in print. I was heartbroken over the bits where Frances' mom would verbally abuse her.

    Third--I never really thought about it, but your points about Derek are valid. He really does seem sort of like wish fulfillment.

    1. Hey, April, I got the recommendation for this book from your blog! Yep, Nancy Wu is a great narrator; definitely give her a try if you can.

      Re: Derek - I read an interview with Cara Chow, where she said that Derek wasn't originally in the book and her editor suggested she put in a romance. I think that's the reason he doesn't feel as real as everybody else, though I understand why there needed to be something nice in Frances' life, to stop things being too bleak and hopeless.

  3. I'm glad you liked this. I've been wanting to read it. I'm interested in how you described the mom. Was there a lot of description about San Francisco?

  4. Yes, Alison, there was quite a good sense of time and place in the novel. There were a lot of references to things/places in San Franciso.


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