The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Reviewed by NC Weil
This 2016 novel, Bennett’s debut, deals with secrets and lies; behavior that seems harmless till someone gets hurt; and, yes, mothers. The narrative, primarily third person as it dips into the minds of smart but destabilized Nadia Turner, her preacher’s son boyfriend Luke Sheppard, and her shy religious friend Aubrey Evans, also rides in the first person plural of The Mothers. This group of older church ladies spend much of their time in Upper Room Chapel, praying for those who leave prayer requests in the sanctuary, but also spreading gossip as they learn fellow congregants’ secrets.
The Mothers have seen it all: girls who get pregnant too young, endure lopsided marriages till either they or their husbands flee, and every other mistake a girl or woman can make, most having to do with trusting men. So they look with suspicion at the boys and young men in their congregation, scold the girls who dress provocatively, and picket the abortion clinic, though they distance themselves from the white fanatics whose instinct is to bomb clinics and murder doctors.
Nadia’s mother kills herself violently when her daughter is seventeen, and Nadia, unable to understand that act, sees her own existence as the crippling of her mother’s potential. They are a perfect lineage, each seventeen when surprised by pregnancy. The older woman, kicked out of her home by her angry mother, joins and weds her baby’s father at the Marine base in Oceanside, California, where he is soon deployed to Iraq. Nadia doesn’t consciously meet him till she’s four, and by then she and her mother are a closeknit pair, her father on the outside. It’s an ordinary household till her mother’s suicide, but then Nadia goes off the rails.
She and Luke spend as much time together as possible, sneaking around his parents’ house in their absence, so her pregnancy should come as no surprise. Luke helps her, but that assistance comes at a cost too high for everyone their lives touch: Nadia, Aubrey, Luke and his parents, his friends… the reverberations of Nadia’s and Luke’s actions go on for years, intensifying when they could have ebbed, and throwing many lives into chaos.
Nadia thinks about her mother, about the pregnancy at seventeen that derailed her life: “Nadia had invented versions of her mother’s life that did not end with a bullet shattering her brain…Her mother traveling the world, posing on the cliffs of Santorini, her arms bent toward the blue sky. Always her mother, although in this version of reality, Nadia did not exist. Where her life ended, her mother’s life began.”
A handful of years pass. Nadia’s upward trajectory – college and law school – is interrupted by her father’s health. Luke’s hopeful return to football after a devastating early-college injury is derailed, opening the way for a more meaningful life. Aubrey, who has carried Nadia’s and Luke’s secrets, keeps her own locked away where they fester. And the Sheppards, leading their church as pastor and First Lady, must pay the consequences of helping Luke end Nadia’s pregnancy.
None are guiltless, all undermine their own promise in ways alternately thoughtless and self-sabotaging. Like all of us, they make their tainted choices for what seem the best of reasons, and so we sympathize even as we shake our heads at the damage they cause.