The Mothers by Brit Bennett

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?)

28815371The 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.

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27 thoughts on “The Mothers by Brit Bennett

  1. I read this the other month! And you have basically expressed everything I felt about it! I too, am a sucker for beautiful writing, even if I don’t end up liking the book as much as I thought I would…
    It was really good. I didn’t LOVE it, but I did like it.

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  2. I still have this in my to-read pile, and I’ve been looking forward to it, especially after seeing it on so many best-of lists at the end of December. Now I’m curious to find out where I’ll fall in my opinion. From what you describe, I have a feeling I might also feel frustrated with choices that are made, because I know I often am with young characters. It’ll be interesting to find out. Great review!

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  3. Too bad! Sometimes I think high expectations are a bad thing – they kinda set books up to fail somehow, don’t they? However, it seems you enjoyed it overall and she sounds like an author to put on the watchlist for the future, for sure… 🙂

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  4. Okay, I have been telling everyone to read this book BUT I actually didn’t love the turn things took at the end. I was really sad that SPOILERS HERE THERE WILL BE SPOILERS RUN AWAY OTHER COMMENT READERS Nadia ended up having an affair with Luke. What a garbage friend, and also, I was sad because it was exactly what you’d have expected to happen, and the rest of the book had been so wonderfully not what I expected. But still, the writing was gorgeous and it made me want more from Brit Bennett.

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    1. YES YES YES Jenny that’s really what bothered me the most about the whole thing. I was like, really? You can’t have fallen for some other guy in the ten years since you first met? And even if you didn’t, you would still want to be with the guy who left you at the clinic alone? It rang false to me. But I’m still glad I read it!

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  5. Lovely review! I have had this book in my tbr for a while and now you too recommend it. I definitely need to get a move on and read this novel already! Do you think it would work as audiobook as well?

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  6. Ah, it’s so disappointing, that feeling. I think we all run into now and then. I had the same problem with Underground Railroad. Not sure I will ever get around to this one myself but it’s on my tbr just in case.

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  7. Great review, Laila! This isn’t on my TBR since family dramas tend to bore me for the reasons you identified above: Things are over dramatized and I struggle to cope with the decisions our protagonists are making. I want them to grow and develop. Yes, people get stuck in loops, but books like this frustrate me. I want hope. I want to see characters find freedom, safety, and break from these loops. I read to find joy– so, The Mothers isn’t on my TBR.

    That said, the prose is *beautiful*. That alone is a great reason to encourage people to read this book!

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  8. Thanks for the honest and fair review, Laila! I like this book a lot. The writing was wonderful, of course, but what I loved most was the characters. Some of Nadia’s choices were definitely questionable, especially in the second half of the novel. But I was reading the book from an objective standpoint and tried not to pass any judgment on Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke. They sure make fascinating character studies. Personally, I couldn’t say if any of their choices rang true to me because I’ve never been in a situation remotely similar to theirs nor have I lived a life like theirs, so I just tried to take in the drama of their lives and enjoy the ride.

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    1. Naz, you’re so much more fair to characters than I am! 🙂 I can’t help but make emotional judgments about things characters do – even if it’s not exactly objective and even if I’ve not lived the experience. But we all read differently, don’t we? I tend to lead with my emotions in most areas of my life anyway, so why should my reading be different I guess. 🙂 I cared about the characters, though, and wanted them to make good choices – so that says something about Bennett’s skill as a writer, right? Thanks for reading and responding to my post!

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  9. Am a little torn as to whether I should read this now! I’ve got a copy at home, but there are just so many other books on my TBR. Gah! Thanks for sharing. I always love reading your reviews. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Anna. I would say it’s still worth the read, even if I didn’t love it. I liked it, and think it provided a lot of things to think about. And the writing is really lovely. I’ll definitely read her next book. I just think I had way high expectations for some reason.

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