Sins of the mother: "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett

Book: The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Release date: October 11, 2016

Pages: 278

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Genre/category: Contemporary fiction

Rating: ★★★ and a 1/2

It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a “what if” can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.

When I was 17, I wanted to marry my high school sweetheart. By the time I was 18, I had divested myself of that guy and all the foolish notions I'd attached to the relationship. (Sidebar: I have several friends who are happily married to their high school sweethearts. Your mileage may vary.) Every part of me believes he was the absolute wrong guy for me, and I shudder to think what my life would be if I had been locked into any of my decisions or preferences at age 17.

The Mothers is all about how the major decisions we make even as young adults can stay with us forever.

It takes place in a black community in Southern California and is narrated by "the mothers," the older women who attend the church central to the narrative. I get in my head about narrators — like, who is telling this story, and why? And how do they know all this? So the Greek chorus format of the novel was a little off-putting to me because it made sense for the mothers to know some of what went on, but not in such intimate detail.

The main trio of the story, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, are all grappling with their youths and seeking to escape the traumas of their past. Broadly, they're all using relationships to escape. But specifically, Nadia escapes through distance, travel and throwing herself into her studies; Aubrey escapes through friendship and faith; and Luke escapes through attempts to recapture some of the glory of his high school days. But the past always catches up with them, and in many ways, their attempts to move on only make things worse.

Bennett manages to strike this perfect balance between indictment of her characters' moral failings and compassion for their humanity. No one is blameless in this tale. Everyone finds some reason to lie, betray or indulge in hypocrisy, from the most outwardly pious church member to the prodigal daughter defined by her scandals. I think the greatest strength of this book is the wisdom it imparts, which is one way in which the narration really works. The mothers' wisdom is hard-won:

“Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.”

The Mothers isn't exactly about redemption, but it's ultimately a hopeful novel. Or at least, it felt hopeful to me. This is the kind of book just made for a book club. Everyone will interpret its ending and themes differently, and the way hope and tragedy are inextricably linked throughout makes it open to wildly different interpretations.