“The Mothers” are a group of elderly women who frequent Upper Room Chapel, a focal point and social hub for the small town of Oceanside. Their voices frame the narration — they open and close the story — as they gossip about and recount the history of their town. This narrative choice aptly captures what it’s like to live in a socially conservative town, where your business is everyone else’s and judgment is freely doled out. The social dynamics of the community fascinated me and made for a riveting reading experience.
Please note that The Mothers made it to my best of 2016 list, so before reading you should know that it comes with my highest recommendation!
Nadia Turner is a beautiful 17-year-old with a bright future ahead of her. She’s naturally smart and has plans to leave her small town life in Oceanside, California behind her after she graduates high school. We meet Nadia the summer before her senior year of high school, before tragedy strikes and derails her life when her mother inexplicably commits suicide. Nadia is understandably heartbroken and at times feels betrayed and abandoned by her mother. In her lowest moments, Nadia wonders if her mother truly loved her if she was willing to take her own life, but must eventually make peace with the fact that she may have never really known her mother. To complicate matters further, Nadia meets and falls in love with Luke, the local pastor’s son, but their relationship quickly ends after Nadia becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion. Her decision to not go through with the pregnancy will follow her for the rest of book, perhaps the rest of her life.
To mention that Nadia has an abortion is not a spoiler, as it happens early on in the story and is one of the key driving points of the novel’s plot and conflict. For reasons all too understandable, Nadia chooses to keep her abortion a secret because her small-knit community would dissolve into hysterics and she’d become a social pariah.
The Mothers is at its best when it’s unraveling for us its characters’ histories, secrets, and complexities. There are three main characters we follow. Nadia Turner is our protagonist. Luke Sheppard is the previously mentioned “local pastor’s son,” a handsome young man who lost his athletic scholarship after a traumatic sports injury and promptly dropped out of school and returned to his small-town life at Oceanside. Finally, there’s Aubrey, who like Nadia is motherless, not literally, but in the sense that her mother is absent and has always failed to be a mother to her. Nadia and Aubrey will become the most unlikely friends and seeing their friendship form, mature, and then dissipate over the course of several years was one of the most rewarding aspects of the novel. I truly cared for these characters and was emotionally invested in the complicated web of entanglements Luke, Nadia, and Aubrey’s lives end up in. The drama, the secrets, and betrayal between them…it’s just too good to miss!
Chances are that you will not find the main characters to be likable or relatable. Nadia and Luke in particular will make awful decisions throughout the novel that will make you squirm or seethe in anger. But even when I was angry or disappointed with them, I tried not to pass judgment on them or their actions, and instead read their story as objectively as possible because my life experiences are so different from Nadia and Luke’s that it’d be difficult to place myself in their shoes. If you are the kind of reader who likes to rationalize everyone’s actions and place yourself in others’ shoes to understand their every action, you may come away disappointed reading The Mothers. Sometimes, people are just inscrutable and make irrational decisions, which I think reveals how flawed and human they truly are.
The topic of abortion is prominent throughout the novel, but it’s noteworthy that The Mothers does not seem to be explicitly pro or against abortion. Nadia’s decision to terminate her pregnancy is something that simply happens and is treated objectively. It is made clear that her conservative Christian community disapproves of it and Nadia herself will have doubts, but the story never feels overtly political or preachy.
Speaking of conservative communities, Oceanside is a quintessential small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, life is slow and static. After Nadia leaves for The University of Michigan, she does not return for years and when she eventually must return for a family emergency, everyone else’s lives remained the same, more or less. Once she’s back in Oceanside, the town seems to work its oppressive gravity that keeps people rooted there, and so Nadia finds herself deeply entrenched in her small town’s drama once again. Nothing good seems to happen while she’s there. Perhaps she can only find happiness or at least contentment with her life anywhere but in Oceanside? That’s something Nadia will have to figure out for herself, slowly and painstakingly.
Themes of loss and motherlessness are also explored, as both Nadia and Aubrey have absent mothers. But motherhood and mothers remain prominent throughout the story, and are all presented with great variety and nuance. There are loving mothers, cruel and callous mothers, women who were once mothers, and surrogate mothers in the form of a lesbian couple who cared for Aubrey and Nadia during their teenage years.
I adored Brit Bennett’s debut novel. It’s is a vibrant, slow-burning, but deeply moving story with characters who are so flawed yet believably human that you can’t help but empathize with them. Few of the characters are likable in a traditional sense. They will make terrible, rash decisions that will drive you to pull your hair out and and scream at them for all their folly, but in the end you will understand why they act foolishly as they try to make sense of their lives. Or perhaps you won’t and you will be even more fascinated by them. At least I was. The Mothers is a sad and beautiful book. The characters, the drama, and the intrigue were so captivating that I often lingered in specific scenes to revel in the complexity and melancholy revealed before me. That’s how I’ll remember The Mothers, as a lingering book, for even though I read it several weeks ago, everything I read and experience still lingers in my mind.
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