Book Related Topics, dystopian, literary fiction, race

Book Review: The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

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“By staying calm, they’re showing their child that a mother can handle anything. A mother is always patient. A mother is always kind. A mother is always giving. A mother never falls apart. A mother is the buffer between her child and the cruel world.”

Frida Liu has one very bad day as a mother and has her child taken away by child services. She lives in a world where CPS is now very strict and any strike will have you losing your parental rights. She’s just gone through a divorce because her husband, Gust, refused to give up his young mistress. Frida didn’t ask for any alimony and is therefore having to work part time to afford the upheaval in her life. She can’t sleep because she’s a mother and that’s why she had this very bad day, you see. After her child gets taken away, Frida has to do a government program for one full year to determine if she’ll ever have access to her child again or completely lose her parental rights.

”Now, repeat after me: I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”

The very bad day Frida has that led to her child being taken away from her is not mentioned in the book’s blurb so I will avoid mentioning what actually happened for protective services to be called on her. I think it was very bold of the author to pick this particular premise because it does not win Frida any favors at all. You come away struggling with the feeling that she deserved to have her child taken away, even though I get the feeling the author wanted us to sympathize with her? There were so many other mothers in the school that didn’t do anything bad that, had they been the protagonist, it would have been easier to root for. I know people criticized the author for this choice but I actually think it was a bold decision that I did not expect from a debut author.

This book is a dystopian novel and the one year school for good mothers is the main crux of this book. It is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read and I think it’s because it could happen. There is nothing so over the top about the concept. The women are given very lifelike, actual talking, almost human dolls (this might be the most outrageous concept in this book) that represent their kids. They’re supposed to mother them for one year and at the end of the year, they get an assessment on whether they should get their kid back or not.

The one year Frida is at the school is told by the author in a very unemotional, monotonous way. I know a lot of people might be put off by this but I found that it worked for the kind of book this is. No matter how creepy the readers might find the whole process, the author’s matter of fact way of telling the story makes it even more intriguing at how the concept of this school was ever conceived and approved.

I did not enjoy the ending of this book. I kept feeling the book building up to something and ultimately the ending wasn’t very climatic. Chan finally got me on the side of the protagonist by the end but there was no pay off for that. I felt betrayed by the author. I also found the protagonist to be a very weak woman. Her husband cheats on her while pregnant but she agrees to a no fault divorce and doesn’t ask for alimony while whining constantly about it to the readers.

Chan also can’t decide what this book is actually an allegory for. Is this book about interracial couples? Sexism? Racism? The way the system preys on black and brown bodies? How the “bad” fathers were treated in comparison to the “bad” mothers? Is the author just pointing out the general unfairness of the CPS? We’re instead subjected to lines and lines pointing out the ills of this society that very much mirrors our own without any of these issues ever really landing for the reader.

This is Jessamine Chan’s debut novel and I can’t wait to read what else she’s going to write in the future. I gave this book 3 stars on Goodreads. Have you heard of this one? Have you read it? What did you think?

Leggy

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