The Mothers by Brit Bennett
This has been a sort of banner year for debut female authors. My favorite books of 2016 have all been in this category - Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn, and now The Mothers. Brit Bennett writes with the sophistication and appearance of ease that you wouldn’t expect from a first novel. And her themes and characters have depth and complexity as well. Structurally, Bennett bases her story around the presence of the Mothers, a group of church ladies who serve a purpose not unlike a modern Greek chorus. The Mothers chime in with commentary and outside perspective, but their understanding is often biased or incomplete, offering the reader a sense of how the main character Nadia is seen by those on the edges of her life. This offers an intelligent counterpoint to Nadia’s understanding of herself, as well as the person she thinks she is presenting to the world.
Nadia is a high schooler who is dealing with her mother’s suicide by acting out in typical teenage ways - boys and booze, namely - while clinging to excelling academically as a way out of her small town. She ends up infatuated with Luke, the pastor’s son, and believes herself in love. But the resulting pregnancy and decision to terminate it sends ripples of consequence through her life whose implications she has no way to predict.
As the result of an unwanted pregnancy herself, Nadia refuses to end up like her mother. She is convinced her mother’s suicide was caused by her inability to fully love and care for Nadia, and her failure as a parent. In getting an abortion, Nadia thinks she is choosing ambition over sacrifice. Indeed, she is giving herself the chance to succeed, paving the way to the life she wants by removing an obstacle. But it’s more complex than that, because there is fear as well behind her decision. Fear that she will fail the same way her own mother did. She never even considers the fact that she could have a baby and also accomplish her goals, because she has never been shown that it can be possible. She comes from a line of women who put the appearance of having the perfect family above loving their daughters, and perhaps loving themselves. So she rebels by taking that option off the table, a choice much more attainable for her than it would have been for her mother and grandmother. She is raised in a world where being a wife and mother is no longer the best or only option.
Of course, choosing her education over being a mother is a sacrifice as well, though Nadia doesn’t see it that way at first. When she leaves for college, she barely looks back. But a few years down the road, the would-be father Luke is engaged to her best friend Audrey, who never left their hometown. When she returns home for the wedding, seeing what she left complicates her desires. She could have had this life. She has always thought about her child, has always entertained a what-if scenario where she gave birth. She doesn’t ever straight out regret the abortion. But the farther she gets from it, the more it seems to infiltrate her. As a teenager, she saw her choices as clear and personal. Having a baby was not right for her, and she did what she had to do. But just because it was the right decision, doesn’t mean it was over that day at the clinic. Either option was valid, but in both situations the opposite choice would haunt her.
Time and time again throughout The Mothers, Bennett shows us that love is strong, and it changes us, but by itself love is never enough to make us happy. Imperfect love permeates the novel. Broken relationships bloom out of betrayal, husbands to wives, friends to friends, parents to children, and on and on. More than anything it’s truth that sets life back to balance. The secret of Nadia’s abortion is the main part of it that hurts her, because the longer it stays a secret the higher the stakes become. It is her desire to be rid of that part of her that’s hidden which propels her so far aways from her home. And when she comes back, it’s the new lies on top of old ones that multiply and devastate her. It’s only when all the truths finally come out, one after another, and only when all the damage is done that she can begin to heal.