Brit Bennett’s stunning debut, The Mothers, was an “it” book back in 2016, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it! It’s exquisitely written with sentences so well-crafted, I read paragraphs over and over a few times, not because I needed to, but because it was just that good.
“A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern. But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”
-Brit Bennett, The Mothers
From the back cover:
It begins with a secret. It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her mother’s recent death, she takes up with the local pastor’s twenty-one-year-old son, Luke. They are young: it’s not serious. But the secret that results from this teen romance- and the subsequent cover-up- will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides the truth from everyone, including Aubrey, her best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults, still shadowed by the choices they have made in their youth, and by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt. An urgent and provocative debut from an important new voice, The Mothers is a book about community and ambition, love and friendship, and living up to expectation in contemporary black America.
As you would guess from the title, The Mothers is dominated by a theme of motherhood: what it means to be a mother, to take care of someone, biological child or not. Underneath, the book is about the messy things in life: love, loss, secrets, and, most of all, the consequences of our decisions and how they can haunt us for the rest of our lives. Bennett plays around with the idea of masculinity versus femininity, of who a person should be and what they should should act like based on not only their gender, but also their race and sexuality.
“Maybe all women were shapeshifters, changing instantly depending on who was around.”
-Brit Bennett, The Mothers
The Mothers is told uniquely through the collective “we” voice of the Mothers of the Upper Room church, a group of traditional, gossipy elderly women in the community who observe the happenings of the church community from afar. I’ve heard a lot of readers say they struggled with this style, and though I haven’t read anything else told that way, I loved it. It rounded out the story, aiding in the development of the characters, and offering multiple perspectives into a tricky situation. I normally think short books like The Mothers
could should be a bit longer in order to fully develop the story, but I think it’s a perfect length for what it attempts to accomplish.
Bennett uses a lot of cliche plot lines, like the teenage girl who turns reckless when her mother dies, and the football player who loses his scholarship after an injury and doesn’t know where to go in life, and even a weakened love triangle, and ties them together with hard-hitting themes and mesmerizing prose to create The Mothers, a portrait of life in our modern world. It’s a timely, topical novel that sucked me in and left me breathless.