If you work in, or pay close attention to, books, you’ll have seen the beautiful, color-blocked cover for months: a woman’s face in profile, segmented as if made of stained glass. This is what it looks when publishing works, when it puts resources behind a brilliant debut like Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. Named a BEA Buzz pick in June (one of six adult titles chosen by editor-panelists), this first novel has been in bookish social media feeds all summer: a galley on the beach, a hardcover in a bedside stack, a tote bearing the cover image slung over a shoulder. Published last week, The Mothers is finally hitting bookstores and library shelves. You should be reading it.
Bennett’s debut novel traces the shifting geometry of a love triangle in a sleepy Southern California beach town. Nadia, a bright high school senior whose mother has recently committed suicide, meets Luke, the pastor’s son and former college football player whose life is on hold after a career-ending injury. Their relationship ruptures when Nadia realizes she is pregnant: Luke’s parents clandestinely pay the bill for her abortion, and Luke himself disappears from Nadia’s life. In the void left by that disappearance, Nadia befriends Aubrey, a church-going girl as sweet as she is steely: both young women have survived different kinds of motherlessness. Nadia leaves for college; Aubrey and Luke stay—but their lives continue to intersect with and complicate one another’s.
In profiles and reviews, critics have made note of the sheer normalcy of the narrative—and by normalcy, they often (with a measure self-awareness, or not) mean this-could-conceivably-happen-to-white-characters. But The Mothers quotidian verisimilitude is not so much radical in and of itself: it’s true that there are few plots more archetypal than a love triangle—revenge, perhaps, or a quest—but they are not experiences that belong to white people, as much as American cultural engines would have us believe otherwise. That we are surprised by a novel about love speaks more about us than it does about Bennett’s work. What she has done is fulfill the both simple and impossibly difficult mandate of any storyteller: to create a world her readers believe in and care about and draw meaning from. Bennett accomplishes that here.
As it is, The Mothers is all ache and scab, gain and loss. Love and affection are both scarce and terribly delicate, especially as exchanged among Nadia and Aubrey and Luke—each equally fragile, each in their own way. And throughout, opening and closing the novel, are its eponymous mothers, a chorus part Grecian and part gospel. “We didn’t believe it when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip,” they remark in winking self-awareness at the novel’s opening. They are the collective voice of the oldest women of the Upper Room Chapel: a dense network of information as well as the arbiter of community norms. It’s the mothers who are most scandalized by the eventual revelation of Nadia and Luke’s high school-era romance, and particularly its consequences. But by the time the old secret is revealed, it no longer has the same effect for Nadia, the book’s true center. They care about different things. Both viewpoints reflect and honor the characters’ individual realities, but it results in a chorus that does not live in the same moral universe as its heroine. Yet it’s because mothers tell a different story that Nadia would, or Bennett does, that opens the book up, makes it something extraordinary. At its end, even after the mothers have stopped attending the Upper Room Chapel, they continue to pray for its members. “No one leaves us prayer cards anymore,” they reflect, “but we intercede anyway, imagining what the congregation might still need.” It’s an act of profound invention, not unlike The Mothers itself: simultaneously empathetic and dictatorial. The mothers author their own reality.
Meanwhile Nadia and Aubrey mother each other, parents, children. Nadia mothers for the Upper Room Chapel, briefly taking up the chores her widower father, “a lonely man and his truck,” did for the congregation. The single voice, to Nadia’s ears, separates as she learns the names and lives of individual mothers, whom she ferries from place to place. “Mother Flora was tall and willowy. She played basketball as a girl….Mother Clarice used to be a special-education teacher, and her friends called her Clara. Mother Hattie was the best cook. Mother Betty had been the prettiest.” Luke, who never quite learns how to mother, suffers because of it: his sense of what he is owed—rather than what he might owe—often poisons him. But they are all works in progress: children who become mothers, mothers who were once children, and so on, an ever-unfurling line of people, alive, trying to do their best.
Catch Brit Bennett in conversation with Angela Flournoy tonight at 7:30 PM at Greenlight Bookstore http://www.greenlightbookstore.com/event/britt-bennett-angela-flournoy.