The Mothers, Brit Bennett, 2016
A grief-stricken young woman clings to boys and secrets for far too long.
Fiction, Women's Fiction
288 pages (Hardcover), Riverhead Books, $26
Rating 3/5 (Steady prose, juicy tale, simplified narrative, unsavory characters)
"All good secrets have a taste before you tell them..."
The Mothers is the story of a young woman coming of age amidst intense grief. Nadia's mother has committed suicide, but she won’t allow herself to break down. Instead, she clings to broken people in hopes of feeling whole. She clings to Luke, an attractive, yet shiftless young man that attends her gossipy church, The Upper Room. She clings to Aubrey, a naive, yet kind girl who she meets while volunteering the summer before she heads to Michigan for college. That summer is The Mothers' epicenter, it is the site from which all the story’s shock waves and ripples originate. During that summer, Nadia’s life is irreversibly changed when she chooses to abort her and Luke’s baby. It is when she is forever forced to ask herself this question: what if?
“What if” is the question that anchors this book. It plagues Nadia’s mind and haunts each chapter. As Nadia grapples with her choices and her secrets, she moves on physically. However, her mind remains stuck—almost obsessively—on the past. She wonders what would have happened if she had kept her and Luke’s child. She wonders what would happen if she and her father were closer. She wonders what her own mother’s life would have been like if she, herself, had never been born. The Mothers is a powerful examination of generational shame. Brit Bennett nicely weaves the past with the present and forces a poignant consideration of how a single person’s choice can go on to shift the world.
Ultimately, what Brit Bennett has crafted is a comprehensive portrait of one girl’s life. The story itself feels very whole. This is mostly due to Bennett’s excellent concentration on place. Nadia’s hometown, her church and each house we visit is treated with intense care and is thus rendered very uniquely. Each space has its own, particular vibe and it becomes interesting to see how Nadia—a very static character—navigates each one.
The Mothers would be even more effective if it were marketed as a YA or high-brow romance novel. The genre confusion stems from the mismatched nature of Bennett’s literary prose and the novel’s adolescent content: it’s mostly about a teen romance. Bennett’s prose is wonderfully metered and poignant, but the story itself is immature. This is not simply because the protagonist is young. What makes the story immature is the way in which she never seems to mature. She seems to be stuck in the past. The same problems follow her for the duration of the story. When Nadia finishes college, she is still stuck in high school. When she travels abroad and sees new things that would, surely, change her perspective or allow for some sort of healing, they don’t. The story felt circular and regressive. The characters don’t develop as richly as they can, which compromises some of the book’s believability. I wanted very badly for Nadia to grow, to see things differently and to forget about Luke—a character with very few attractive personality traits. Whenever I became curious about Nadia’s professional and personal developments, we were always thrust back in time to the same three things: the abortion, Luke and her mom. Instead of letting the story flourish and develop on its own, Bennett seems dedicated to sticking to a rigid tale. It’s the kind of tight, purposeful “writing workshop” narrative that doesn’t allow for too much breathing room.
The Mothers works because it is a reflection of the kind of gossipy, dramatic chit-chat that can go on in churches like The Upper Room. The book is a page-turner. It has the same magnetic, seductive quality that draws us into bouts of gossip. There is something mysteriously—perhaps sadistically—satisfying about prying in and wondering about a person’s life. While reading The Mothers, we are doing the same thing that the novel’s odd chorus of church mothers are doing: judging Nadia and wondering why she makes the choices that she does. I’m sure we’ll all wonder different things. I wonder why she’s stuck in the past. I wonder why her mother committed suicide. I wonder why she can’t seem to get her life together, despite having so many chances to move forward. I wonder if all this wondering was the actual point of The Mothers. I am also wondering when Brit Bennett will release her next book.