That was basically my reaction for a good portion of this book, especially towards the end. I’m not yet sure how to feel about it; my emotions are rather conflicted and I haven’t solidified my alliances yet. But Bitter Melon had me hooked from the beginning. The story follows Fei Ting, or Frances, through her senior year of high school and through her struggles of trying to please her mother. Her mother wants her to go to UC Berkeley and become a doctor to be successful and later take care of her, ad initially Frances accepts this expectation and works hard for it. But after a mistake in her school schedule, she meets Ms. Taylor and she discovers a passion for writing and public speaking.
A lot of the middle of the book is Frances trying to hide her newfound passion from her mother all the while getting her friend Theresa stuck in the middle of the battle. But Frances succeeds, she wins competitions, and she discovers more about herself through the school year.
The story from a broad point of view was great, as I could not put it down to work on an essay that’s due in about a week. It kept me engaged and wanting to know what happened next, and it kept my emotions running more or less wild throughout the whole novel. But it was not without fault. I didn’t really like how Chow showed Frances’ relationship with her peers, namely Theresa and Derek. From the beginning, the friendships seemed forced and a little unrealistic. For example, Derek and Frances automatically hit it off without saying a single word to each other until a good portion of the book is done. And then I’m supposed to believe that he likes her? And just conveniently broke up with his girlfriend? Even though they still acted like a couple for more than half of the novel? I just wasn’t buying it; it was just too good to be true that he and Frances would go to prom together and then ultimately be dating (? still confused about this actually).
And then Theresa. Initially, I got the feeling that Frances was jealous of her, almost harboring hatred for her. But then all of a sudden, they’re in the same class and she’s her only ally and now they’re the best of friends. What? All of that jealousy and hatred? Poof! Gone! Now Frances has someone to lie for her while she goes to speech competitions behind her mother’s back, how convenient. Even when there’s tension in the friendship, it’s resolved in the next line while referencing Theresa’s ability to quickly forgive and bounce back from whatever caused the tension in the first place. I almost wish there was more tension between them (and between Frances and Derek) just to give the characters a little more depth.
The mother-daughter relationship was also a bit troubling for me, especially at the end. Prior to the last two chapters or so, I was rooting for Frances to do what she enjoyed and not be manipulated by those around her, to get out and be her own person. But then she started being rather cruel to her mother (cue the OH SNAP part), and then escaped from her grip. And I realize why this was done, to give her mother a taste of her own verbal abuse and then finally be free. However, the scene still rubbed me the wrong way a bit, and this might be stemming from my own aversion to disrespecting my mother. Then again, my mother has never verbally abused me, so I don’t know what I’d do in a similar situation. I’m still glad that Frances was able to be free in the end, but still have some love to give to her mother as the last sentence in the novel suggests.
I still don’t know quite what to think, so I encourage you to read it for yourself and come to your own opinions.