The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Jessamine Chan's debut novel, The School for Good Mothers (2022), was recommended as one of the best novels of 2022, by many top reviewers and news outlets. It's a challenging and provocative read, as Chan herself acknowledges in author interviews. Her hope was that the book would leave readers thinking about the systematic pressures and demands imposed upon mothers, rooted in historical ideals, but ever-increasing due to the influences of technology and social media. Women of color, particularly those who live in poverty, suffer far worse than white women in Chan's dystopian version of the United States. All mothers are judged more harshly than fathers. The setting--a not-so-distant future—feels uncomfortably close at hand. Given all this, for me, at least, Chan's hope was met.

Here's the premise of The School for Good Mothers: Frida Liu, a Chinese-American single mother living in Philadelphia, loses custody of her toddler daughter due to some poor choices made on what Frida refers to throughout the book as "one very bad day." In order to regain custody, Frida must be trained to be a good mother at a newly-established reform school run by the government. She will live at the school for a year with other mothers, whose trespasses range from benign to malignant, all of them enduring constant surveillance and training. The mothers must demonstrate maternal success by passing every test set before them, or they will never see their children again. Although the focus is primarily on Frida, the nuances of the other mothers' diverse experiences are explored as the year unfolds to a dramatic end.

With The School for Good Mothers, Jessamine Chan has crafted a speculative novel that resonates in the manner of 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale. There is humor laced throughout, but the book definitely raises timely and unsettling concerns about parenting culture and state-sponsored family separation that may linger with readers for a long time.

Post User
Karen S