I had Bitter Melon (Scholastic 2011) by Cara Chow in the box of books behind my desk for most of the year before I brought it home for the summer. I wasn’t sure what it was about, so I kept picking up other books to read first, but once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. I was rooting for Fei Ting or Francis from the first moment she explained the contradictions within her names. The tension between “fly” and “stop” and “free” in the meanings of her names carried through the entire novel.
At school, Francis is a top student. She works hard to get excellent grades and is even taking an after school review class to improve an already impressive SAT score so that she can pursue a degree in medicine from UC Berkeley. A scheduling mistake lands her in speech class instead of calculus. She puts off correcting the mistake until it is too late, but speech class just might open her life to possibilities she had never considered before if she can convince her mother to let her continue. Will speech give her a chance to finally fly free?
Known at home as Fei Ting, Francis is never good enough to live up to her mother’s expectations no matter how hard she works and studies. She is not nearly as smart or as talented or as obedient as Theresa, the daughter of her mother’s best friend. She is not allowed to to anything but study–no boyfriends, no dances, no fun. She never knows what might set off her mother’s anger or another guilt trip. I was horrified when her mother beat Francis with the trophy she won at her first speech contest. Even winning first place in a speech competition isn’t good enough.
Chow explores so much in this novel: parent-child relationships, friendship and jealousy, even a little bit of romance. What spoke most powerfully to me was Francis’s ever-changing understanding of success. As she competes in speech competitions throughout the year, her speech changes to reflect her growing awareness of a bigger world.