Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt that they didn’t know their mothers. Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.
You know that bookish phrase you see frequently in reviews – “I wanted to like this more than I did?” Like most cliches, there’s a reason you see it a lot: it describes a real feeling. The Mothers by Brit Bennett was one of 2016’s most highly lauded and promoted novels, and many of the book bloggers I follow had high praise for it. To top it off, it has one of the most appealing covers of any hardcover in recent memory. The fact that a debut novel by an African American woman had so much buzz around it is refreshing and hopefully a sign that the publishing industry is changing. (I hope?)
The Mothers is what I call a family saga. The main plot deals with romantic relationships and a long-standing friendship, but the weight of family drama is ever present and influences the actions of the main characters throughout. Nadia is a seventeen year-old living with her father after her mother’s suicide. She and her father don’t know how to communicate with one another after such a horrific tragedy. As she moves numbly throughout her days, making some poor choices, she ends up secretly dating Luke, a preacher’s son and an “older man” at 21. Nadia also befriends an introverted newcomer to her school, Aubrey, who harbors her own painful family past. Nadia and Luke’s relationship turns physical, and she becomes pregnant. What Nadia and Luke decide to do that one summer has repercussions throughout the rest of their lives.
Providing an interesting structure throughout the book is a Greek chorus-style group of women who are the elder lay leaders of the Upper Room church that Nadia’s father attends, and where Luke’s father serves as preacher. These are women who serve on the committees, bring casseroles to the bereaved, and pray collectively for people of the church.
We don’t think of ourselves as “prayer warriors.” A man must have come up with that term – men think anything difficult is war. But prayer is more delicate than battle, especially intercessory prayer. More than just a notion, taking up the burdens of someone else, often someone you don’t even know. You close your eyes and listen to a request. Then you have to slip inside their body. You are Tracy Robinson, burning for whiskey. You are Cindy Harris’s husband, searching your wife’s phone. You are Earl Vernon, washing dirty knots out of your strung-out daughter’s hair.
If you don’t become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words.
I liked the collective voice of these women, which sometimes separated into a single person and then came back together. I cared about Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, and was invested in seeing how their lives played out. But choices were made that really frustrated me. And I wondered about the likelihood of some of those choices as well. Things didn’t ring true at times. I kept thinking, these people are in their late 20’s now. Shouldn’t they be moving on a little bit, expanding their social circle? Are they doomed to keep repeating patterns? Sometimes it felt a bit like a soap opera, a bit overwrought. I’m being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil anything.
That said, Bennett is a lovely writer. I marked passages that were simply beautiful to read, like this:
Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.
Or this one:
…magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.
The strongest, most nuanced parts of the novel for me were Nadia’s and Aubrey’s fraught relationships with their families. Nadia’s strained relationship with her father was particularly moving to me. I felt how much they loved one another, but they just couldn’t find a way to communicate their love. The sections detailing with Aubrey’s painful past and how she tried to find a way to live and love afterwards were beautifully written as well.
I liked this lyrical, haunting debut novel and would most definitely read something else by Brit Bennett. She is certainly an author to watch, and I am so glad she’s getting media attention. This would make a good book for a book club – lots of things to discuss, both in plot and in structure. This was a case where my own high expectations for the book weren’t quite met, which is not the author’s fault. If you like a book about modern, complicated families and relationships, secrets and regrets, you should give The Mothers a try.