Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Another Title for My Awesome Recent Historicals List

“Bitter Melon,” by Cara Chow,  Egmont USA 2011

 There is so much to love in this unique YA story, I can only be glad that it happens to be set in 1989-1991, falling very neatly into the category of Recent Historical Fiction, which, of course, makes it a perfect candidate to be included on this list: https://katiaraina.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/best-contemporary-historical-fiction-yamiddle-grade/

Okay, so first of all, there is the premise: a Chinese-American teen whose mother has already decided on her future. Young Frances (or Fei Ting — which I think sounds way cooler) must get into Berkeley, conveniently located near home and Mother, and become a doctor, to help her ailing mother get cured of her stomach issues. I mean, we’ve all heard about some very pushy parents, but this? Wow. The conflict that this promised hooked me immediately. And for the most part, the story did not disappoint. Fei Ting is an incredibly complex and well-developed character. Often she is neither particularly nice, nor wise — but she is trying — and I think that makes her all the more endearing. Her mother also seems to have many sides to her personality. She is a selfless parent, crazy about her daughter. “You are my life,” she tells her. That same woman is a cruel and calculating bully. As I read, the mother fascinated and terrified me. 

I think the pushy parents “mommy-knows-best” theme is very interesting. I have struggled with it myself, as a daughter and granddaughter, and continue to grapple with it now as a mother, and I imagine most other people do too.  Also, I really enjoyed getting to know the Chinese-American culture, from the food to the occasional Cantonese, to even the characters’ thoughts sometimes, I felt like I got a glimpse into that world, without feeling as though I was reading a primer.

Personally, I would have liked a bit more of the taste of the early 1990s — not just the place, San Francisco, which was beautifully rendered, but also the time. Why couldn’t the story have been set during any other period? I am sure there is a good answer and I would have loved to know it. Also, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Fei Ting’s crush. I couldn’t say I really understood him all that well. Even so, I rooted for Fei Ting, and hoped, for her sake, that her feelings for this guy would be answered in kind.

Most important of all, though, I totally raced through this emotionally charged story. When I finished it, many of its images and scenes stuck in my mind. My favorite ones: Fei Ting’s mother beating Fei Ting with a trophy, Fei Ting wearing her mother’s old dress to the prom (naturally, without her mother’s permission) and the ending scene with her mother . . . which I won’t give away here, of course! 🙂


April 10, 2011 - Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History | ,


  1. I read this months ago. I loved it and kept waiting for Frances to stand up to her mother. Some people said it had an autobiographical flare to it since it took place in the 80’s. I did read a post by the author where she stated she wrote the first draft in the 90’s when she was pondering her relationship with her mother. Still, I enjoy reading books that take place in that time period.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | April 10, 2011 | Reply

    • It definitely feels like it has some autobiographical flare — I think most novels set in recent historical times do. And the emotion, the pain in the story feels so real . . .Still, I don’t think that necessarily gets the author off the hook about not only giving us a distinct feel for the era she is describing, but also making us feel as though THIS PARTICULAR STORY couldn’t be set during any other times. I’d cite “How I Paid for College” by Marc Acito (the 80s) and “Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle” by my now good friend Nan Marino (the 60s), as examples of recent historical settings done well. (Of course, the 60s aren’t that recent and are easirer to do . . . Still. I AM an incredibly picky reader, and I almost always find something to pick on, even in the books I love. Sometimes I wonder if I should have become an editor. 😉

      Comment by Katia Raina | April 10, 2011 | Reply

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