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The Mothers is a terrific debut novel that treats motherhood like an open wound

The Mothers by Brit Bennett Riverhead Books
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It’s reasonable to assume that any novel with a title like The Mothers — especially one with a cheerfully pink cover — might be sentimental. But Brit Bennett’s debut is searing and ferocious. In this book, motherhood and the absence of motherhood are each a painful, vicious wound.



Mothers and almost-mothers abound. There are the church mothers, who narrate the action like a gossipy Greek chorus, knowingly remarking on how they all know what it is to have “loved an ain’t shit man.” There’s Nadia Turner, who gets an abortion at 17 so she can leave her small SoCal town and go to college, and is subsequently haunted by the idea of the baby she never had. There’s Nadia’s hometown friend Aubrey, who marries Nadia’s ex-boyfriend and has no luck trying to get pregnant. There’s Nadia’s mother, who killed herself, and Aubrey’s mother, who chose an abusive boyfriend over her children.

For Nadia and Aubrey, their mothers have left a legacy of guilt and shame: The two daughters must not have been good enough, or their mothers wouldn’t have left them, and wouldn’t have let men hurt their daughters. The specter of their imagined pregnancies and imagined children is inextricable from the childhoods they imagine they would have enjoyed if they had been better, or stronger, or more worthy of a mother’s love.

The plot that connects all these ambivalent mother figures is not supremely original or interesting. There’s an affair, there’s guilt and recriminations, there’s a return home, and everyone is more or less the same person at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. Beat for beat, the structure of The Mothers is a little pedestrian.

What elevates the book are the emotional underpinnings of each character, and Bennett’s lively, precise voice. Nadia may not have a surprising arc, but she feels every minute of it deeply and profoundly. She worries that she’s just repeating the life of her teen mother; that she should have been as strong as her mother, who chose not to have an abortion at 17; that she ruined her mother’s life by being born. It’s not subversive or unexpected, but the emotions are so precisely rendered as to feel compelling anyway.

And whenever the plot fails to surprise, there’s Bennet’s playful, thoughtful voice to distract you, fretting over all the possible shades of meaning in the word unpregnant:

its finality, its sheer strangeness, not not pregnant but a different category of woman altogether. An unpregnant woman, he’d always thought, would somehow wear her unpregnancy as openly as pregnant women did.

The whole book is filled with elegant passages like that one, moments that unravel a thought or a concept and then weave it back together again so that it looks just a little different than it did before.

In a transcendently amazing novel, Bennet would unravel her characters and plots as adeptly as she does her words and ideas. The Mothers only manages the one — but it’s still a pretty fantastic book anyway.

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