“I am a bad mother. But I am learning to be good.”
Let that one sentence serve as a trigger warning for anyone that needs to be sworn off literature that will push every single anxiety-laden button you could possibly have about successfully parenting a child.
Jessamine Chan’s “The School for Good Mothers” is one of the most intense novels I have devoured in a very long time. It’s raw, painful, maddening … all the things that you’d think to yourself, “Why am I torturing myself? I need to stop reading this.” Except you can’t. I couldn’t. I HAD to find out what happens to Frida and Harriet.
Listen, unless you are a robot, chances are as a parent you’ve skated through a few crises that were the result of a blunder on your part. Like the time I went to the bathroom and left one of my toddler kids unattended for a few seconds — long enough to find out the glass front to the gas fireplace does get hot and can burn your hand. Or the time I was in the kitchen with a girlfriend when my 3-year-old daughter jumped off the couch and broke her foot.
For our protagonist, Frida, she just had a very bad day. At 18 months, Harriet is a handful, she’s solo parenting because her husband has left her for Susanna, a younger, granola-ish would-be influencer and she’s trying to juggle the baby and a full-time job. Sleepless nights, sheer exhaustion … we’e all been there. So when Frida places Harriet in the Exersaucer with the intention of running out for just a minute, even she is shocked at her lapse in judgement when the police call to say they have her daughter.
I should have picked up on the dystopian turn the novel takes right from the outset — the prying eyes of the state when Frida first loses custody of Harriet, the downright evil social worker that insists everything Frida does is harmful. But it wasn’t until her court hearing and subsequent one-year sentence to the School for Good Mothers that I realized I had fallen into another world. Though honestly, with the advent of social media and everyone getting in everyone’s business, I can’t say something like this couldn’t happen.
Frida’s year at the school is quite simply, insane. For just about every member of Frida’s circle of support, their singular goal is to make it through to the other side to be reunited with their children. And it requires to set aside your own beliefs and learned behaviors about parenting and subscribe to the completely over-the-top set of expectations as prescribed by the state. A hug for every occasion, but never more than three seconds long. The ability to heal a child’s fever through empathy, intuition and love instead of Tylenol. The ability to recognize their failures as a human being and setting aside their entire selves for the benefit of their child.
Oh, and did I mention they have to parent a robot child for an entire year and are judged on how that robot child performs and golly gee whiz isn’t that great? Oh my goodness. Crazy town. And it’s captivating, can’t-put-it-down kind of reading.
I’ll have to post this review back up in January 2022 when this novel hits the bookshelves, but if you are keeping track, put this on your list for next year. It is terrifying and fantastic all at once.