As someone who is childfree by choice but who has many friends who are parents, I think a lot about how this event in someone’s life affects our evolution as individuals. The Mothers approaches this with additional layers of considering race and class. I say “layers” because that’s how it feels like Brit Bennett tells this story: like a croissant, hundreds of thin layers folded over on each other, waiting for you to read them.
Nadia, almost done with high school, starts seeing Luke, who is older. When she discovers she is pregnant, Luke comes up with the cash she needs to get an abortion. Later, Nadia goes off to university and Luke marries her best friend. As she returns to her hometown to take care of her father, Nadia has to confront how her choices and those of others around her have shaped her life—and in particular, how our response to the pressures of religion, culture, racism, and society in general shape us.
I really liked the way that Bennett uses space as well as time to delineate her narrative here. Nadia leaves her small town in California to go to the University of Michigan and doesn’t return for years, not even to visit her father or Aubrey, not until Aubrey gets married. She escapes and lives so much, goes so many places, experiences quite a bit, before getting pulled back to her hometown in a semipermanent way. Although there isn’t much that I have in common with Nadia, as someone from a small town that many people leave only to come back to, I can identify with that experience.
Similarly, I enjoyed the way Bennett charts Nadia’s experiences and comments on them through the omniscient narrators that are the eponymous Mothers of the church. The way they say that they saw this coming (or would have), that they could have warned Nadia off the pastor’s son, etc.
There’s also a lot that can be said here about race, though I am sure others have said it better. We can’t talk about pregnancy and who is burdened with the risks of it without talking about the way that healthcare in the United States fails Black women and girls in particular. The story that Bennett is telling her is a story that feels very timeless—aside from a couple of references to texting, and of course Nadia going off to university, this story could have taken place in now or in the nineties.
I yelled at the book when Nadia did the thing that she, of course, was inevitably going to do when she returned to her town. The aromantic in me finds it really hard to wrap my head around the choices that people in romantic relationships make sometimes!
Bennett’s style didn’t work as much for me as the characterization did. The book is very light on dialogue, heavy on narration and description and telling us what a character feels or thinks. This isn’t to criticize Bennett’s writing skills—I loved some of her turns of phrase, some of the metaphors and descriptive language she uses. But the storytelling happens at a distance from the characters, and it is hard to get emotionally invested in the events despite their intense emotional experiences.
I enjoyed The Mothers and think I get what Bennett is putting down here. That, in a way, is a good measure of the success of a book: did I connect to the author enough to hear their message? The answer here is yes. Whether I will read more of Bennett’s work—I know The Vanishing Half is very well regarded—is up in the air.