Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Blog Tour Review + Interview: Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

I'm pleased to be part of a blog tour for Cara Chow's book, Bitter Melon, which was published by EgmontUSA earlier this year!

Tags: YA, POC, Asian Americans, mother-daughter relationships, speech


For all her life, Frances Ching has lived by her mother’s demands: she, the obedient daughter, will study hard, get straight As, go to med school, and become a doctor so that she will be able to support her mother, who has sacrificed everything for many decades for her only child’s success. However, when Frances gets accidentally enrolled in her school’s speech class, she discovers a heretofore-unknown passion for words, and an inspirational teacher who helps her see the power of words.

Unfortunately, speech is most definitely not a Mother-approved subject, and the more Frances plays with words, the more she realizes how her mother uses words to keep them tied tightly together. Will Frances give up her new dreams to remain obedient to her well-intentioned mother, or will she pursue what she wants at the risk of breaking her mother’s heart?


You know, I’m always pretty hesitant to read these books. Stories of difficult and overbearing Asian mother-daughter relationships a la The Joy Luck Club always seem to blend together for me after a while. Happily, while the premise of BITTER MELON is not unique, it presents Frances and her mother’s story in a way that worms inside your heart and draws out your emotions.

Ms. Taylor, Frances’ speech teacher, tells her that words contain great power, and so it is with this book. We may not be able to understand Frances entirely, who seems to miss that certain sort of “openness” that I like most about YA protagonists, but we are very much absorbed into her painful struggle to define where her mother ends and she begins. Frances suffers verbal, physical, and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, and while hopefully most readers will not have experienced the same level of horror, we can all relate to the tensions that arise when our desires don’t match our parents’ expectations.

The plot escalates at an enthralling rate, and becomes practically impossible to put down at some points. No, there is nothing of the action- or adventure-novel type, but as Frances’ cover-ups of her speech activities continue to pile up, and her relationship with her mother becomes worse and worse, I was on the edge of my seat, nervous for her.

BITTER MELON is an incredible tale of an oppressed teenage girl’s blossoming, and has an ending that befits all of Frances’ struggles and hard-won triumphs. It is a book I would recommend to a wide range of readers, for its emotional, all-too-real portrayal of the dark side of mother-daughter relationships, and the power that one can find within oneself, with the right words and support.

Writing: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Plot: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

Cover discussion: It's a bit generic--like, why are there waves in the background, besides for the fact that Frances lives in San Francisco?--but I'm very glad there's a beautiful Asian girl on the cover. The model has a perfect blend of fragility yet inner confidence that reminds me of Frances.

EgmontUSA / Dec. 28, 2010 / Hardcover / 320pp. / $16.99

Review copy sent by publisher.

Author Interview with Cara Chow

1. What was the most surprising or unexpected thing that happened while you were writing BITTER MELON?

The most unexpected development was the creation of Derek Collins, Frances’s forbidden love interest. Until I met my agent, Derek was a minor character who showed up in only one scene, in which Frances competes in her first competition. During one critique, Max, a fellow classmate in my writing class, said “Derek is such a hunk! You should make him into Frances’s boyfriend!” At the time, I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “This is a serious drama, not some frivolous romance!” I thought. “Max just totally doesn’t get it!”

A few years later, I queried my future agent, Stephen. After reading my manuscript, he wrote me a very nice letter telling me all the things he liked about it. Then he went on to explain that it was missing a larger hook and asked if I would be open to sending him a revision. After reading his letter, I called him and asked, “What does ‘larger hook’ mean?” To illustrate, he gave me an example. “You could add a romance,” he said. Despite my initial resistance, I sensed that, not only did Stephen know the market, but he also understood my story and would not suggest something that would diminish it. Begrudgingly, I had to admit that Max was right. I went to work creating a new character, making the budding romance another point of contention between Frances and her mother. Ironically, while I was revising, my own mother, who had read the same draft Stephen had read, told me, “I was thinking, you know that blond boy, the one in Frances’s first competition? I want to see more of him and I think you should bring him back.” A couple years later, when deciding what to read for my book launch, I chose a section that included Derek because I had learned by then that people love the suspense of a good romance.

Ironically, in one of the many reviews of my book, the reviewer complimented the book overall but complained that the Frances-Derek romance was unnecessary. Oh well, you can’t please everyone.

2. Gracie raises Frances as a single mother. Was there a reason you decided not to include the presence of a father figure in BITTER MELON

In the first draft of the book, Frances had a mom, an aloof, deadbeat, biological father, and a loving step-dad. Later, I axed the deadbeat biological father and made the loving step-dad into Frances’s only dad. This father figure was very important in the story. By the second or third draft, it became clear that my story lacked focus. It had too many plots: the mother-daughter plot, the father-daughter plot, and the overachievement plot. To tame my story, I would have to choose one. At one point, I was considering making it a father-daughter story, putting the mother in the background. In the end, I decided to make it a mother-daughter story, with the overachievement issue being a symptom of the mother-daughter dynamic. To intensify the power struggle between Frances and Gracie, I decided to axe the dad. This nearly killed me because Frances’s dad was so lovable and I had received so much positive feedback on this character. But doing so strengthened the story. Without a dad to support the family, Gracie is much more dependent on Frances, which increases Frances’s obligation to her mother, as well as her guilt.

3. What kind of research went into the writing of BITTER MELON

I tracked down my high school speech coach, Mrs. Willson, and asked her questions about the scheduling and structure of speech competitions. This was important for the plotting of the scenes in which Frances competes. I also consulted my mother on all things Chinese of which I was unsure. She helped choose Frances’s Chinese name and last name. She also knew the name of the local Chinese newspaper in San Francisco.

4. What was the most important thing you learned from your mother? 

The most important lesson I learned from my mother is the value of forgiveness and redemption. My mom and I had a very difficult relationship in my teens, and I was angry about those years well into my twenties. That anger affected my life in so many ways. Not only did it preclude a healthy adult relationship with my mom, but it also affected my mental and physical health, my relationships with other people, and my objectivity in my writing.

I was unable to forgive my mom because I misunderstood what forgiveness really meant. I thought that forgiveness was something I would give to her after she apologized. In reality, forgiveness is about letting go of the past and being in the present. It’s about understanding cause-and-effect while letting go of the need to blame. I had viewed it as a moralistic issue when in fact it was a pragmatic one.

My mother taught this lesson through her example. A few years ago, my mom and I travelled to Hong Kong and China for a family reunion. In Hong Kong, Mom gave me a tour of her past. When she showed me the apartment where she grew up, I saw firsthand how poor she was. That was when I started to understand the hardships that shaped how she coped with life. What struck me, as she led me from site to site, was how free she was of bitterness and trauma. She talked about the past matter-of-factly, cheerfully in fact. She was better at moving on than I was. I’ve also noticed over the years how adept she is at correcting her own mistakes. All parents make mistakes, and she had some regrets about how she raised me. Instead of wasting time feeling guilty and wishing that she could turn back the clock, she instead focused her energy on being a better mother and grandmother in the present.

5. In your author bio on your website, you mention that you were a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow. Can you tell us what means? 

As a PEN EV Fellow in 2001, I was assigned a mentor who critiqued my work and gave me professional advice. The program also funded my enrollment in a creative writing class through UCLA Extension. I got to participate in special workshops held exclusively for EV Fellows. I was invited to readings at the LA Central Library. I also participated in two public readings. In addition to all those privileges, I got a $1000 stipend. This program lasted from January through August. I’m sure the program has evolved quite a bit since then, but the basics are the same. It was an excellent program for me, one I would recommend to emerging writers. It is a good alternative to the MFA program because what it offers is very practical and it doesn’t cost money. It is also structured in such a way that you don’t have to quit your job to participate. You do have to apply for it though. You have to be eligible, and it is very competitive to get in.

6. What are some of your favorite things about San Francisco? 

The thing I love most about San Francisco is that my family is there. I wish I could spend more time there so I can spend more time with my relatives. I also love the Cantonese food there. San Francisco has a very large Cantonese population in the US, and the restaurants and bakeries reflect that. I also love all the hiking places along the beach, especially when the weather is warm and sunny (nice weather is rare there, but it happens).

7. Would you consider yourself a morning or night person? 

Neither. Waking up in the morning is painful for me. My head feels like a boulder on my pillow and my body feels like it’s stuck to the mattress like a fruit roll up. Late nights aren’t much better. Is there such a thing as a middle-of-the-day person?

8. Who are some of your favorite authors? 

I have many favorite authors, but these come to mind first. In the fiction category: Robert Cormier. In the non-fiction category: Jared Diamond.

Now here’s a favorite author I haven’t mentioned yet in other blogs: Terry Wolverton. She writes poetry, essays, memoirs, and fiction. She’s an LA literary icon. She is also my writing teacher. She is also an amazing yoga teacher.

9. Do you have any other writing projects in the works? Can you give us a teeny tiny peek into what they might be about? 

At this point, I wish my muse would give me a sneak peek into what my next book will be about. Right now, your guess is as good as mine!


Thanks for visiting my blog today, Cara! Readers, I hope you considering checking out Bitter Melon. It is truly an emotional and relatable story.


  1. I really like the sound of this book!
    I'm going to keep it in mind and in my To Buy list.

    Thanks for the review and the interview!

  2. Thanks for the overview/interview, this book sounds great. I'm adding to my TBR list.

  3. Wonderful interview as always, Steph! I enjoyed learning more about Cara and appreciated her honest answers. Will look for Bitter Melon!

  4. Glad you liked it. I tried it and just couldn't get into it. I finally gave up about 100 pages in. It just didn't click with me.

  5. Very nice review & interview! I've been seeing great things about this one but I'm not sure if I should pick it up... Either way, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  6. This was so chilling, so moving I had to write Cara. I can't even talk openly about how deeply that Chinese mother-daughter trauma/healing runs. Only another yellow sister could understand. Whoo.

  7. Like Sophia, this book moved me so much that I had to email Ms. Chow. Sometimes as a book blogger I forget to email authors when I loved their books but this one left such an impact and was so painfully realistic that I had to email her.

    The '80s setting is something I still don't get except that it might be autobgiographical? But the story is universal because I think at some point we all fail our parents.

    Books like Bitter Melon (and Operation Redwood!) have made me interested in visiting San Francisco it sounds like such a diverse place with tempermental weather, which I can relate to :)

    Wonderful interview as always :)

  8. Bitter Melon seems like an interesting book! It's incredible that her mother didn't have any bitterness about her life in China, and I also love Robert Cormier.


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