Book review the school of good mothers

Everyone likes to judge how mothers take care of their children.

Jessamine Chan takes that idea and uses it, launching a debut novel that contains elements of The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange is the New Black but is entirely new and terrifying. The school of good mothers is not the one you want to attend.

Frida Liu fights as the mother of little Harriet. Her ex, Gust, settled in with the nimble Susanna, younger and full of Instagrammable parenting advice. Frida’s boss is brooding, the demands of solo parenting are relentless. This is on top of what she calls her “very bad day”.

She parks Harriet in the exersaucer so that she can rush to the office to retrieve a file. Unfortunately, she loses track of time and the police telephones her. The neighbors heard Harriet cry. His daughter is at the station. Can she come in?

It’s a believable setup and the first of Chan’s many clever plotting decisions. Its ability to take the story from a relatable nervousness to a police procedure through an emotionally charged legal fight prompts the reader to expect a more conventional narrative.

Instead, here is dystopia. A judge sends Frida to spend a year at the novel’s title school. It’s a new residential program, explains her lawyer, and she will have weekly video calls with Harriet, who will live with Gust and Susanna while Frida learns how to be a better mother.

Quickly, despair rises. The childless women who run the near jail unveil a set of skills every mother must master, a Squid Game-like hierarchy of talents. Failure at any level results in an additional “talking circle” or the removal of phone privileges. Constant penance includes the refrain, “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”

What makes this all the more heartbreaking is that the government-run school’s curriculum reflects real cultural pressures. Good mothers sacrifice themselves and are also perfect. They anticipate their children’s needs and calm distraught toddlers in minutes. They never scream.

Writer Jessamine Chan (USA), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 17, 2020. Photography © Beowulf Sheehan

The school for good mothers is also the school for helicopter mothers. They rarely have to let their young loads out of sight. The group trains to fend off kidnappers and pedophiles and save a child from a burning building. (A parallel school for fathers that appears later in the book has much lower standards.)

“It doesn’t matter if you fight one person or twelve,” insists the instructor. “A parent should be able to lift a car. Lift a fallen tree. Repel a bear. … You have to find this strength within yourself.

Frida’s childhood as a US-born daughter of Chinese immigrants leaves her at times ill-equipped to analyze the expectations of those in power. Her own parents share society’s disappointment at her mistakes. One of Frida’s many fears during her isolation is that Harriet will lose touch with her Chinese heritage because her ex-husband and new boyfriend are white.

There are many light-hearted novels that use harassed mothers for sad laughs. The hurdles Frida faces in The School for Good Mothers, on the other hand, are heartbreaking. Chan’s gift for reflection makes his novel a mirror of a fairground, grounded in reality but just tilted enough to make us pay attention.

(Simon & Schuster, January 4, 2022)

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