You thought Amy Chua was the ultimate Tiger Mother??!! Ha! Chua looks like a mewling cub next to Gracie Ching, the ranting, manipulative, so-called traditional Chinese mother whose idea of tough love includes beating your daughter … wait for it … in someone else’s house, with other people watching, using the trophy said daughter recently won in an academic contest!
In spite of such shattering moments, Cara Chow‘s debut novel is a coming-of-age immigrant story so familiar, it borders on cliché. Frances is a high school senior in 1989 San Francisco, an obedient ‘good girl’ with top grades. Her controlling mother expects her to get into UC Berkeley, become a doctor, and take care of her as payback for all the years she has suffered and sacrificed for her daughter. No surprise that Frances develops her first-ever crush on a smart rich white boy, although dating is something her mother would never allow. But yes, of course, Frances eventually wakes up from her blindly obedient reverie – in this case, thanks to a feisty, nurturing teacher – and discovers her latent sense of self and goes out to conquer the world.
Most of us have read variations of the teenage APA self-discovery novel. But Mommy Dearest Gracie Ching drags the control-freak Asian mother stereotype to such spectacular new lows that Chow’s own promising writing gets eclipsed. You can’t appreciate the simple irony of Gracie’s name (she’s anything but graceful), or Derek’s surprisingly empathetic fish-out-of-water stories when he takes Frances out to a fancy restaurant, or even the gall of the red-haired girl with her distraction tactics during speech competitions.
Instead, Chow’s spotlight on Gracie Ching’s abuse overwhelms all: she slaps and hits without remorse, she lies, she screams and throws things, she criticizes and insults, she does the woe-is-me-routine complete with regular bodily emissions (do we really need to know?). She is relentless, apparently in the name of maternal love. As her sheltered, minor-aged daughter, Frances has little choice but to endure the abuse … but her escape can’t come soon enough, even more so for the reader.
Bitter Melon is a painfully difficult read, to say the least … but not in the way, say Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok – another mother/daughter immigrant story – was a wrenching read. The latter had moments of surprising light to counter the challenges, and the balance ultimately resulted in an engaging, fresh twist to a familiar story. Bitter is merely exhausting to the point of desensitization. With so many better alternatives – I found myself missing the original Tiger Mother! – my final reaction to reaching the bitter end was little more than ‘why did I bother’?
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult