[Review] The Mothers by Brit Bennett

“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! 

Plot overview

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.

Characters

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.

 

Themes

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. 

 

Final Thoughts:

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.


Thank you for reading. Enter your email below to receive frequent updates from RDB!

Receive New Posts By Email

43 thoughts on “[Review] The Mothers by Brit Bennett

  1. Terrific review! Although I wasn’t quite as moved by this book as you were, I feel like I understand why you felt the way you did. I still think this is a very good debut and worth the read, and I look forward to reading Bennett in the future!

  2. Glad you loved the read. I was not as awed by the read as you mainly because I could not relate at all to Nadia. I felt she kept repeating her same pattern of mistakes. I loved Aubrey though. I think Bennett has a lot of potential. I am looking forward to her next book.
    PS: The tote that matches the cover of mothers is fantastic

    1. Yes, the tote is my absolute favorite!! I love how colorful it is and take it with me whenever I go shopping for books 😀 though, it has been a while since I went on a serious shopping spree at a store. I’ve been getting too many books online :/

  3. This is a beautiful review, Naz! Your thoughts were riveting to read, to be honest. You articulated everything wonderfully. I really enjoy books that focus on difficult topics, such as abortion and conservative communities, yet I feel a lot of the books that I end up finding do that in such a problematic and hot-messy type of means. I’m looking forward to this title. I’ve been hearing (and reading) a lot of fantastic thoughts on it. Thank you for sharing yours! You’re one of my favourite bloggers, so always excited to read your book reviews. 🙂 Happy reading.

  4. Doesn’t really seem like my kind of thing… but then, I’ve often thought that and be proved wrong, and you’re so enthusiastic and passionate about this book that I might yet give it a try! 🙂

  5. After it made you list of best of 2016, I have had it on my radar and I hope to read it soon. This book sounds out of my comfort zone, exploring themes of motherhood and motherlessness. I really appreciate your thoughts on the entire story and how it flows together with the different themes regarding community, motherhood, and the choice of abortion. I will look for it at my local library if it ever stops snowing :p

  6. Sounds like an amazing read, although I am not comfortable with reading stories about abortion. Gone with the wind Scarlett o’hara is also a love to hate character. I wonder if the characters are like that in the book?

  7. I’m a fan of unlikable characters, but sometimes I don’t like it when they make really obvious bad decisions – so, I’m getting very curious about what I’ll think of this book. It’s in my pile, so hopefully soon!

  8. Glad you enjoyed this book! I’ve seen it floating in the blogging world and have been interested in reading it. From what you’ve described the characters sound really complex and I love read slice of life/human stories. Looking forward to reading it!

  9. I had some issues with where the book’s plot went towards the end, but oh my gosh, the writing in this book. Brit Bennett has such a knack for the exactly-right turn of phrase to describe really specific emotional moments, and the writing throughout the book just blew me away.

  10. I have been waiting for this review! What a coincidence that you post it the day after I attended a Brit Bennett author event! It truly was a pleasure getting the chance to meet her and listen to her read from The Mothers and talk a little bit about herself and the book. I knew this was one of your favorite books of 2016, so I know I am going to absolutely love it too.

  11. Lovely review! This sounds like a good book for character study, although it’s not my usual cup of tea. I can absolutely relate to the ‘everybody knows your business’ theme though. I come from a big city, but everyone has their own communities and everyone knows your business! I can’t, it’s not my thing. Haha!

    It’s interesting that the Nadia character appears to make a lot of bad decisions — makes you think, is that due to her life history, of feeling like her mother abandoned her? I can’t quite remember what that argument is called (it’s at the tip of my tongue!) but it’s one of those sociological/psychological themes that is kind of nice to explore and think about!

    Gemma
    http://thetravellingblbiophile.com

  12. Let me open with this: thank GOODNESS even you, the amazing Naz, post reviews long after you’ve finished reading the book. You are suddenly much more human. 😉 It can be so hard to keep up sometimes!

    I appreciate that you’ve pointed out these characters are rarely likable. That’s so important to many readers. It takes a strong and aware reader to not pass judgement on characters for their choices. Well done, Naz! That said, this won’t turn me away from the book. I much prefer character development to likable characters, if that makes sense.

    A wonderful review. I look forward to reading this book!

  13. Naz the photos in this post are just divine, I’ll just go back to staring at them now! I’ve heard such positive things about The Mothers from so many reviewers that I really will have to try and bump it up my priority list. In particular I’m excited to see how the theme of and discussion of abortion makes me think and to what extent it aligns with the view we have/ have had in Ireland over the past 40 odd years since for some reason despite abortion already being illegal, the people decided to place a constitutional ban on it too. I’ve also heard some mixed things on the narration style so I’m excited to see how I find it. Great review as always Naz, you’ve definitely motivated me to prioritise this one!

    1. Thanks, Katie!! I love the pictures too 😀

      I think the narrative style is great! “The Mothers” framing the story was subtle, so it doesn’t really detract from anything. If people had issues with the book, the narration style should be at the very bottom of the criticisms, imo. I think some people would take issue with the last 1/3 of the story and the decisions the characters make.

  14. I’m curious to see what she publishes next; it must be hard to approach the final stages of a new draft when you’re surrounded by accolades for your previous book and SO many people have had good things to say about this novel. (Then again, it’s probably also hard to be finishing something new if everyone hated/ignored your debut!) Glad to hear you enjoyed this one so much (and I love the cacti – also love winter and snow so I’m not trading that for healthy succulents but your plants make me long for some like that)!

  15. Great review. This book sounds interesting, though I can’t say it’s something I’m likely to read. I tend to prefer books with likable characters (making it more likely the book will meet my escapist goals–I read for entertainment, a break from everything going on in my life).

Let's start a discussion!