BOOK REVIEW | The Mothers by Brit Bennett

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

My thoughts:
A girl who didn’t want a baby would find a way to not have one. The good thing to do – the Christian thing – would be to make it a little easier on her. 

In her debut, Brit Bennett brings flawed characters to the page with ease. Her writing is smooth and easy to take in, and I enjoyed so much about this story. Nadia is 17 years old and destined for greatness, but grieving the sudden loss of her mother. In her grief she falls into the arms of Luke, the local pastor’s son. Luke and Nadia engage in a typical teenage fling – it’s passionate yet fleeting, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and a secret that binds them together. This is a coming of age story spanning about 10 years in which we see Nadia and Luke come together and separate many times over. Along the way, Nadia develops a friendship with a girl named Aubrey who untimely becomes deeply intertwined in both Nadia and Luke’s lives.

The narrative is uniquely divided between many of the central characters, as well as a group of older church ladies simply known as “the mothers”. I struggled a bit with the purpose of these women – they observe drama unfolding from the sidelines and gossip about it among themselves. I kept thinking they would inject some wisdom or greater meaning into the story, but this never really happened. There is tons of wisdom in the book, however, and Bennett delivers many profound moments in this work:

Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless, she had tried to tell him. Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.

In a way, subtle racism was worse because it made you feel crazy. You were always left wondering, was that actually racist? Had you just imagined it?

These are just a couple of the passages that I highlighted while reading, and I could easily share many more. My primary disconnect is that I can’t quite figure out this book’s intent – what is the mission here? The book discusses abortion openly and frequently, but doesn’t take a stance on it (though I would say it leans heavily towards pro-life). I realize this book isn’t meant to be a political statement, but I am trying to work out what is it meant to be. It certainly poses the question “what makes a mother?” – is it physically having a child, or does the longing for a child count too?

How small she’d looked next to the size of her wanting.

In the end, this may simply be a book about longing: longing for love (romantic and maternal), family, friendship, longing to find space in the world, and for the truth.

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