Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

Speech geeks unite!

Debate gets brought up all the time as a geeky competitive high school activity, but I never did it. Because I was caught up in something even geekier: forensics, aka competitive public speaking. So when I saw that Frances joins the speech team in this book, I knew I had to read it, because speech geeks don't get nearly enough love.

Bitter Melon
Frances's life revolves around her mother. Her mother, an immigrant from China, demands utter perfection from her daughter, sending her to an academically challenging high school to ensure Frances will get into a prestigious college with plenty of scholarships to propel her through medical school, after which Frances will be able to take care of her.

The only problem in this scenario - Frances isn't positive that she wants to follow her mother's map for her life. When Frances is accidentally assigned to speech class rather than calculus, at first she figures she'll just sit in the class for a week or two and then transfer to the right one before the deadline. But as the hip and cool teacher recognizes an innate speaking ability in Frances, she ends up sticking around - the first secret she's kept from her mother. Frances knows on the one hand she is being ungrateful - her mother truly has made great sacrifices, working long hours in order to afford Frances' tuition, not to mention clothes, food and rent. But until taking this speech class, Frances has never had the opportunity to consider her own desires, and what might be driving her mother's quest for Frances' excellence. Is her mother truly concerned for Frances' future? Or merely her own?

Frances's mother isn't a nice person. This is probably an understatement. Reading the physical and, especially, the verbal abuse she puts Frances through is absolutely painful. But Chow does an excellent job of slowly revealing the abuse, as Frances's world is slowly opened through her experiences on the speech team. It's not so much that the team magically opens Frances's eyes, but rather as her teacher encourages her hidden talent, Frances begins to understand the power that words can hold.

While Frances and her mother have a very complex relationship that is the core of the novel, most of the other relationships suffer from lack of definition. The friendship between Frances and Theresa especially seems to be one of convenience, as the girls quickly befriend each other after one kind act on Theresa's part, as Frances seems to have resented the girl for years. After that the friendship's up and downs seem to be defined more by what will complicate Frances' life more than anything else. The romantic subplot also takes awhile to get going, and while her crush's personality may not be the most well developed, the details of their relationship were refreshingly authentic - overpowering deodorant, clammy hands, and sweaty outfits all called to mind my early romances more than any idealized romance novel ever could.

As a speech geek, I can totally vouch for the authenticity of the competitive aspects of the book. Frances' competitions superficially differ from how mine were set up, but different states have different rules, and of course she was competing over 10 years before I entered the high school speech scene. But there are some emotional aspects that will always ring true - and every speaker has faced terrible audience members like Frances' nemesis throughout the book! In more ways than one, the scenes of Frances' speech career are a light and necessary break from the oppressiveness of her home life.
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