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The Mothers

Review

The Mothers

“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.” So say the Mothers in the opening pages of Britt Bennett’s lyrical and moving debut, which concerns a closely guarded secret and the effect it has on the intertwined lives of three young people growing up in Southern California.

The Mothers are a Greek chorus of community gossips, the elderly denizens of the local church, Upper Room. This clutch of women watches over the novel’s action, forming their own, imperfect judgments of the players involved. But the book really belongs to Nadia, the owner of the secret in question, a 17-year-old African-American girl who’s “young and scared and trying to hide her scared in her prettiness.”

Nadia’s mother has recently committed suicide, leaving her only child isolated and adrift. The lonely teen finds solace in the arms of Luke, the son of Upper Room’s pastor. Once a hotshot football star at San Diego State, he’s back at home, working at a beachside restaurant and coping with his own feelings of grief and disappointment after a devastating injury cut his playing career short.

"[Bennett's] sharp insights into the hidden motivations that drive a person’s decisions and the unexpected ways those choices shape their lives make THE MOTHERS a must-read."

Before long, Nadia and Luke’s tentative, clandestine romance bears unwanted fruit. She gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. Luke comes up with the cash for the procedure, but never shows up at the clinic to pick her up afterward, a betrayal Nadia can’t forgive. As the years pass, she holds her secret close, not even telling her best friend Aubrey, with whom she bonds over their shared motherlessness. But the sweet, churchgoing Aubrey, a foil to restless and sometimes reckless Nadia, has secrets of her own, including the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. “I could hear him moving through the apartment, like a rat clicking through the pipes. I could hear him before he got to my room,” she remembers in a heartbreaking passage.

For Nadia, the choice to have an abortion is hardly a choice at all. When she finds herself pregnant, she already has her acceptance letter to the University of Michigan in hand, which she sees as her ticket out of Oceanside, the stifling military town of her childhood. “[Luke] had to understand she couldn’t pass this up, her one chance to leave home.” Nadia is also acutely aware of the effect a teenage pregnancy had on her own mother’s life; as she sees it, she owes it to her dead parent to seize the chances she never had.

Bennett gracefully handles the question of the abortion, treating the incident with the gravity it deserves without resorting to cheap moralizing. Nadia never exactly regrets not having the baby, but the life she might have built with Luke and their child haunts her, even as she heads to college and then law school, rarely returning home. Finally, after Aubrey and Luke fall in love and are married, Nadia’s long-held secret is ultimately revealed, upending the lives of all involved.

The question of motherhood --- what it means to have one, to be one (or want to be one), and to lose one --- permeates THE MOTHERS. Bennett’s carefully drawn characters are all grappling with questions of identity and self, and, in the case of Nadia and Aubrey, what it means to be a woman, especially in light of their own mothers’ choices.

“A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern,” says one character. At first glance, such an observation seems like a more poetic rendering of the old saw that all women eventually become their mothers. But Bennett is plumbing a deeper truth. The Mothers narrate their sections in a hypnotic, first person plural that effectively links the experiences of the younger protagonists with a broader shared experience of African-American women, each “trying to manage the hard lives we’d been given.”

Bennett is a keen and sensitive observer, from her poignant description of the thoughtfully chosen but unwanted gifts Nadia’s father buys her each Christmas, to the way she highlights “the sly type of racism” she encounters in Michigan, where “white girls…expected her to walk on the slushy part of the sidewalk” and boys drunkenly tell her she’s “pretty for a black girl.” Her sharp insights into the hidden motivations that drive a person’s decisions and the unexpected ways those choices shape their lives make THE MOTHERS a must-read.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on October 12, 2016

The Mothers
by Brit Bennett

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 039918452X
  • ISBN-13: 9780399184529