“Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.”
The first time I picked up The Mothers was back in 2017. After reading a few chapters I set aside thinking that it was not for me. And then came the advent of The Vanishing Half. To say that I like that novel would be an understatement. I’ve read it twice and twice I fell in love with it. After rereading it I found myself wondering whether this time around I would actually be able to appreciate The Mothers so I gave it another shot. If I only had to rate this novel in terms of its literary merits this would easily get a 5 stars. While I wasn’t overly keen the mother’s ‘chorus’, I remain in awe of Brit Bennett’s luminous prose. The reason why I cannot sing this book’s praises lies in its storyline, specifically in the way Nadia’s abortion is handled.
The book is set in a conservative and religious Black community in Southern California. ‘The mothers’ are an older group of church-going women and their Greek chorus is interspersed throughout the narrative. Their traditional values are reflected through the judgments they make about the rest of their community. They seem particularly disapproving of young people and their ‘inhibited’ ways. The actual story follows three people: Nadia Turner, who is seventeen and grieving the death of her mother (who committed suicide); the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard, who is twenty-one and working in a diner after an injury ended his promising football career came to pastor’s son; Aubrey, a pious girl who is living with her older sister. Nadia and Luke begin sleeping together but their casual relationship is complicated when Nadia becomes pregnant. Nadia, who is desperate to leave her town behind and wants to college, decides to get an abortion and Luke comes up with the money for it. But, when he fails to collect from her after her appointment at the clinic Nadia is deeply hurt. The two no longer spend time together and Nadia becomes close to Aubrey. In spite of their different personalities, the two feel seemingly unmoored. Their bond at the beginning of the story is one of the highlights of the novel. Alas, all good things come to an end and Nadia goes off to college while Aubrey remains in their hometown. Over the next few years Luke and Aubrey fall in love and when Nadia returns home things get complicated.
I was not a fan of this love triangle, which was at best unimaginative. Luke was a lustreless and often cowardly character. I genuinely thought that Nadia and Aubrey had more chemistry then either Luke/Nadia or Luke/Aubrey. But I could have looked past this rather clichèd love triangle (one girl is the wild and beautiful one, the other is the quiet plainer looking one) if it hadn’t been for the way both the characters and the narrative itself punish Nadia for her ‘sin’. Throughout the narrative abortion is associated with being a sin, a crime, an abhorrent act. None of the majors character challenge this view. There is not one voice of reason. Nadia, years later, is haunted by the ‘what if’. She ends her pregnancy early on yet she believes that she knows that the ‘baby’ was a boy and is wracked by guilt envisioning him growing up. I am not about to argue that abortions are not traumatic experiences or that the person who chooses to get an abortion does so lightheartedly but come on, having Nadia be haunted forever seems a tad too much. Who cares that she’s gone to college or soon to be a lawyer? Her life is forever defined by her abortion.
Luke is horrible about the whole thing (piling on the guilt by also going on about ‘our baby boy’). And you might say that of course every person in their community is going to shame Nadia or think her sinful. But, why does the narrative reinforces this? Nadia is ostracised and by the end of the novel it is implied that by she will never be happy or content or able to settle down.
Luke on the other hand is not punished. Nadia is made into the story’s villain as she not only gets an abortion but she also betrays her best friend (again we have the implication that the ‘type’ of woman who gets an abortion has loose morals). So ‘other woman’ and sinful Nadia is given a miserable ending while kind god-fearing Aubrey alongside Luke are blessed with a child. Puh-lease.
The thing is, I may have been more understanding if this novel had been set in the early 20th century. After all, I love Toni Morrison’s Sula which shares quite a few similarities with Bennett’s novel. But, Morrison never condemns Sula herself. She makes it quite clear that she becomes her community’s scapegoat. The complicated friendship between Sula and Nel remains the focus of the narrative, whereas here Luke takes the centre-stage.
In spite of my issues with the characters and their storylines I did find Bennett’s prose to be beautiful. There are some poignant observation on grief, loneliness, and friendship.
While I recognise that Bennett is a fantastic writer this novel’s not to subtle anti-abortion message did not sit well with me and because of this I cannot on a good conscience recommend it. Read Sula instead.