The Mothers by Brit Bennett - A Review
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Published: October 2016
Genre: Literary Fiction
Setting: California, US
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett's mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret.
"All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we'd taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season."
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother's recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor's son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it's not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.
In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a "what if" can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.
Over the last couple of months, i’ve made peace with the fact that I am unashamedly a prose girl. I love stories that have an easy flow and are built on characters and plot. When it comes to form versus content, I will always be drawn to content over form. And it’s not that I don’t love a beautifully written book with all its lyricism and poetry, it’s just that I love resonating with the story and characters more than the poetry and word arrangement.
The Mothers, I must say is a book that left me completely satiated, filled my cup and then some. The story revolves around the lives of three young adults who we meet in their late teens – Nadia, Luke and Aubrey – and follows how they navigate their youth; the choices they make and the reverberating effects these choices have further down the road.
Nadia has just lost her mother to an unexplained suicide and her father, drowning in his own grief, is unable to pay attention to his daughter’s needs. In an attempt to mask her pain and her growing sense of abandonment, she turns to Luke, a local pastor’s son and former football player whose injury recently put him out of commission. Their summer romance results in a pregnancy that they decide to terminate, a decision that will haunt them for a long time to come (No spoilers here as this is revealed in the first page of the book). Nadia and Aubrey, another ‘motherless’ girl and volunteer at the community church, develop a close friendship, drawn to each other by their shared loneliness. Over the course of the years, these three lives intertwine as the characters are forced to reckon with their choices.
This is a book that makes you reflect on the flippancy of youth. How the decisions we make in our early years shape our lives, the possibility of regret and the always lingering question, ‘what if?’ What if we had chosen differently, how significantly would those decisions have altered the course of our lives?
At the heart of it is the significance of community in the grounding of self and the different layers of mothers and mothering. The book explores how these layers inform one’s perception of worthiness and outlook on life. People always talk about ‘daddy issues’ but this book flips the script and show us just how dire ‘mommy issues’ can be. There are those mothers who opt out of Motherhood and those who are physically present but in every sense of the word, absent. We meet the judgmental mothers who love to exert control on their children, manipulating them into doing their bidding, the almost mothers who choose to be ‘unpregnant’, the siblings who become adoptive mothers and the mothers in waiting.
The narration moves back and forth, told from the perspective of the three central characters and there’s also a Greek like collective ‘we’ chorus that represents the community church older mothers who form the conscience of the community. They carry the secrets of the small town, chiming in, passing judgement and gossiping but above all, offering guidance and encircling the community.
The mothers is a deceptively small book but in 288 pages, Bennett is able to skillfully construct a thought provoking narrative that weaves together a story of secrets, absence, motherhood, community and friendship. The characters are so realistically complex, I was deeply invested in finding out what would happen to them, how their futures would pan out and what kind of people they would turn out to be. I was upset and saddened by some of their decisions but was still able to empathize with them.
I highly recommend this book and I can’t wait to get my hands on her novel book – The Vanishing Half - Bennett’s second Novel.