I am not a mother, but recently I have read two books that shine a pretty special light on motherhood. You might remember my review for Chouette, and this one, although totally different, I think will also stay with me for a long time. And it has a fantastic title as well.
The School for Good Mothers: A Novel by Jessamine Chan
An Instant New York Times Bestseller
A Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick
In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.
Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.
Until Frida has a very bad day.
The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.
Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.
A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.
About the author:
Jessamine Chan’s short stories have appeared in Tin House and Epoch. A former reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Brown University. Her work has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Anderson Center, VCCA, and Ragdale. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.
I thank NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone, Hutchinson Heinemann for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I heard a lot of comments about this novel, was intrigued by its subject, and I can honestly say this is a book that won’t leave anybody indifferent.
The author is well-known for her short stories, but this is her first novel, and as she explains in the author’s acknowledgments at the end of the book, she had been working on it for many years before it saw the light. It seems that it started as a short story, but at the recommendation of a writing mentor at a workshop, Chan felt encouraged to develop the concept. Readers who are interested in the writing process will enjoy reading the author’s note, as it gives a good sense of what inspired her, which writers influenced her, includes a bibliography for those interested in her sources, and it also gives an account of how many people play a part in the final product, from the author and her family to the institutions providing support of all kinds.
The description of the novel gives a reasonable overview of the plot, although I am not sure everybody who has read it would agree on the way the book is characterized in the last paragraph.
We have all heard stories of neglectful parents, and/or parents doing things that seem unthinkable, like kidnapping their children, harming them, or even killing them. I have often thought that in this day and age when one can hardly do anything without having “training” and holding “a certificate” (at least in most Western societies), it is amazing that one of the most difficult things to do, raising a child, requires no qualification and there is no supervision or education provided to ensure that young people of a certain age know, at least, the very basics. As if the author had read my mind, in this book, the authorities create a School for parents (yes, for the bad mothers of the title, but there is also an equivalent school for bad fathers, although with fewer students and much more lenient), and “dystopic” doesn’t quite make it justice. The action takes place in a world that sounds exactly like ours and in the present (or at least not in a particularly distant future) in the USA, and that increases its impact, because it is not that difficult to imagine something like this happening (although perhaps some of the details are a bit fanciful and stretch credibility slightly, but only slightly).
Frida, the main protagonist, does something that is definitely bad (I am not a mother, so I cannot speak with any inside knowledge, but I think it is understandable although I cannot imagine anybody would condone it), although not, by far, the worst thing we hear about in the novel, and she is not the most sympathetic of characters. And that is, perhaps, what makes it a particularly effective but tough book to read. Because it is very easy to feel sorry for a character who is tender-hearted, kind, and nice, and feel outraged for the way s/he is treated, but here, we not only meet Frida (whose story is narrated in the third person but from her limited point of view), but also some of her peers, and none of them are people most of us would want as friends in normal circumstances, especially once we learn about what landed them at the school. But Frida gets to care for them and we do as well, and we also feel their frustration, their pain, and their desperation. Those of you who are parents, imagine if everything you did when you were with your children (and even when you were not with them) was recorded: every word, every move, every gesture, every look… and all that evidence was judged in comparison to some perfect standard impossible to achieve (and most of the time, impossible to explain by the teachers and impossible to understand by the students).
Apart from motherhood (parenthood), issues such as identity, legacy, family expectations (grandparents, relatives…), cultural differences, prejudice, desire, temptation, mental illness, privacy, mono-parental households, single mothers, the difficult (almost impossible at times) balance between profession and personal life/ work and family life, and big questions like who gets to decide what is the best for a child, and how far can laws and society go to regulate certain aspects of our lives… This is a book of big ideas, and I am sure book clubs would find plenty to discuss here, although I suspect some readers will not feel comfortable reading it and might abandon it before the end.
I enjoyed the writing style, even though I am not a fan of the use of present tense (we follow Frida’s story, chronologically, for over a year, and this is narrated in the present, although there are memories and thoughts about the past or a possible future that also make an appearance), but it suited the tempo of the story, which follows the seasons and the school programme, and it progresses at a slow pace. (I am not sure “page-turner” is a good definition, at least not if it makes us think of non-stop action and a quick pace). One of the strong points of the novel is the way it describes the thoughts of the main protagonist, her doubts, her guilt, her second-guessing herself and others, and also the way it explores her feelings, her efforts to control herself, to be seen to be doing the right thing, however hard it might be (and still failing sometimes). Although the story is poignant and very hard, there are some lighter and witty (even bitchy) comments and moments that make us smile. Yes, I’m not ashamed to confess I cheered when Harriet, Frida’s daughter, bit the horrible social worker, and although I don’t think any fragment can do justice to the novel (and if you want to get a better idea of how well the book would fit your reading taste, I recommend checking a sample of it), I thought I’d share a few brief quotes:
Here, Frida is talking about Susanna, her husband’s new girlfriend:
The girl is on a mission to nice her to death. A war of attrition.
Perhaps, instead of being monitored, a bad mother should be thrown into a ravine.
Harriet is wearing a gray blouse and brown leggings, like a child of the apocalypse.
What little she knows about the lives of saints comes back to her now and she thinks, this year, she might become holy.
“A mother is a shark,” Ms. Russo says. “You’re always moving. Always learning. Always trying to better yourself.” (You’ve probably guessed that’s one of the members of staff at the school).
The ending… I am not sure I’d say I liked it, but I think it fits the novel perfectly, and I cannot imagine any other ending that would work better. Readers seem very divided by it, and some felt it ruined the novel for them, while others loved it. It is open to interpretation, but I like to imagine that it shows Frida has learned a lot about herself and about being a mother in the school, but not perhaps the kind of lessons they had hoped to teach her.
In sum, I enjoyed (although it is not the right descriptor, you know what I mean) this novel, and I am sure I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. I don’t think this is the kind of book to recommend to a young mother, or to somebody struggling with motherhood or thinking about it, but anybody interested in the subject of government control, education, parenthood, and keen on dystopic narrations should check it out. And I will be keeping an eye on the author’s career. I’d love to know what she writes next.
Thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for this book, thanks to all of you for your continued support, and remember to keep on reading, smiling, and safe (as safe as we can all be these days, at least).
Check what the publishers did in London to celebrate the publication of the book: