The best thing a book can do, to and for me, is evoke some sort of passion. The bell rings if it makes me angry. Bitter Melon rang my bells, much like What Can’t Wait did. Both are stories about what it’s like to be a first generation American citizen of an immigrant parent. Both portray the conflict these young people are faced with when the message from their parents is mixed – the parents want them to have a better life but they also want to ensure the teen doesn’t forget their culture and roots.
Immigrant families aren’t the only folks facing that issue. Every family has its own culture, tradition and roots. So there’s always some level of struggle a teen faces when they’re ready to go out and find their way in the world.
The difference, in most cases, is the level of intensity those born of immigrant parents faces. It can reach heights of tension bordering on familial warfare. And in Bitter Melon, it becomes abusive. Frances (Fei Ting) is a seventeen-year-old senior in 1980’s San Francisco expected by her hardworking mother to become a doctor and take care of all mama’s medical and financial ills. Lofty goals, especially considering Frances has no desire to be a doctor.
Frances’ mother uses mental and physical abuse to keep her daughter on the required path. Not until she erroneously ends up in a speech class instead of Calculus does Frances find her voice (pardon the pun) and begin to consider life outside her domineering mother. She finds an ally in a former competitor and begins to secretly live life on her own terms.
On one hand, Frances was a sympathetic character. You’d have to be heartless not to feel for someone enduring that level of abuse. But on the other, the abuse made her selfish, sometimes suspicious and sneaky. It’s no Cinderella story, for sure.
Bitter Melon doesn’t break any new ground. And there seemed very little reason for it to be set in the 80’s. There were points where I forgot it was 1989 until there was a pop culture or fashion reference. However, Frances’ struggle for independence (what teen doesn’t at some point?) and her willingness to get into trouble for a simple sip of a social life kept me reading.
I also found the end satisfying and balanced. It’s neither triumphant or tragic, but steeped in the mixed feelings one would likely have after enduring years of abuse from a loved one.