Bitter Melon by Cara Chow (Scholastic 2011) has great moments and weak ones. The protagonist, Frances, is complex and engaging, and there is some great interaction between her and her best friend, Theresa. The core ideas — finding a way to speak one’s truth, navigating the path between loyalty to one’s mother and to one’s self — are important and compelling. It takes on the experience of a first-generation teenager in valuably familiar and unfamiliar ways.
However, the plot has trouble finding its rhythm in many places — we no sooner find out that Frances despises Theresa than they become instant best friends, for example, and the key conflict reaches several false climaxes. The characterization of Frances’s mother is confusing because she borders on psychotic at times, yet we seem to be expected to take her instead as a very flawed but ultimately loving person. In addition, two key characters, Frances’ speech teacher and her boyfriend, veer on flawless and thus flatness.
All that said, Frances is a character you root for, and Chow’s voice is original. And of course, there is a lot to be said for any young adult book with an Asian-American woman on its cover. Chow might tell Frances’s story inexpertly, but her truth is worth listening to.