Recently, fiction about motherhood, particularly exploring the dark side of it, and the struggling and difficult aspects of it, has become increasingly popular. I have an interest in books that depict such themes, and that drew my attention immediately to The School for Good Mothers.
This is a disturbing, unsettling, and nervous-racking book. It makes you root for its main character as she navigates atrocious and dehumanizing situations and leaves you watching as the reality she is settled in swallows her whole.
Because of one bad day, Frida is now being put under the scrutiny of the state. She is a mother who endangered her child, who had a lapse of judgment that needs to be corrected. She is a bad mother. I didn’t realize this book would be a dystopia, but it definitely was. From the early pages and the surveillance and criticism put over Frida, every little thing that is wrong about her, even what she can’t control, or the fact that a child is allowed to cry or be tired and being under the eye of a social worker and limited timed visits do not help to create a “video worthy” moment, to when she finally enters the so-called “School”, is so scary. For lack of a better word. The simple fear you feel reading these situations, where a mother, a woman, is so helpless at the mercy of the state, of the government, of other people who get to decide if she is good or bad, or capable of taking care of her own daughter.
The way Jessamine Chan constructed the school was over the top. She really managed to bring up in one single place all the expectations that are put on women to be “good mothers” and what a good mother should do. To sum it all up: the impossible. I won’t talk much about what goes on inside the school walls because I think every reader ought to be surprised by it as I was during my reading of this book, but I’ll say that I felt so hopeless, helpless, and angry to read about what those women had to endure, and all of what I read made me question so much about how distant are we from that in our current society and how close we are as well.
Frida is a Chinese American protagonist and that brought up to the table other themes and discussions as well, for example, the fact that she is the only Asian woman in the school. Or the fact that there is more expected from here, from her parents, from the state, for her to perform her life as the perfect model minority. And Chan’s dissection of all these aspects is done in such a spectacular and engrossing way, I don’t think there was even a second that she allows you to shut your eye to the horrible things that are said and done and that make you question the place of mothers, of women in the world.
This was a marvelous reading experience. I am so glad to have come upon this book because it truly became one of my favorites on the subject. The ending just left me close to tears (angry tears!) and also with my heart so hopeful for Frida. If you’re looking for your next great read, a book that will shred you to pieces and will make you question everything, then look no more.
Thank you so much to Edelweiss and Simon & Schuster for the ARC.