Book Review: The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers – Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books, 2016)

When Nadia Turner loses her mother to suicide, her grief and anger turn into rebellion, culminating in a relationship with the son of the pastor at her father’s church. Nadia is seventeen, almost finished high school, while Luke is twenty-one, floundering after an injury ended his promising football career. Their relationship is passionate, secret, and ends in tragedy. As Nadia reels from its aftermath, she befriends Aubrey. Aubrey seems to be the ultimate Christian young woman, regularly volunteering at their church, saving herself for marriage. The two girls seem entirely different and yet are drawn together, building the kind of close friendship that, seemingly, only women at the cusp of adulthood can create. As we follow Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey through their early twenties, they are haunted by the decisions they made that summer and the question of, What could life have been if I had walked a different road?

These are such universal questions that even as Nadia and Luke and Aubrey feel so realized and lifelike, it’s easy for the reader to insert themselves into the story. What would I do? Why would I choose differently? Even the happiest among us might wonder what our lives would be like if we had made one small decision differently.

Just as she does in her most recent novel, The Vanishing Half, Bennett brings both her characters and a community to life. Here that community centres around a church called Upper Room. As someone who has lived my whole life within church communities, I would say Bennett nails it. While Upper Room seems to be a predominantly Black church, there is a culture here that was very familiar to me, including many of the characters. Both good and bad, Bennett brings to life the eccentricities and beauties of this church.

The one part of the book where I felt it faltered was in the mothers themselves. These are the narrators of the book, which is sometimes written in a more distant, third-person narration, sometimes in a plural first-person in this voice of “the mothers”. The idea of the mothers is one easily recognizable – the group of older women who are part of and central to the body of the church. They’ve lived their lives, raised their children. They bring meals to those in need, volunteer at church functions, and are served by the church. Here there are individuals identified but their voice is singular. I was never quite sure what they were supposed to add to the story itself and it gave the narration a strangely mystical tone that didn’t quite seem to fit. Motherhood is one of the questions brought up in both Nadia and Audrey’s life but wasn’t as central to the plot, I felt, as the title might suggest.

After enjoying The Vanishing Half, I’m pleased to have returned to Bennett’s work and seen how it has progressed from this novel. This is definitely a promising first novel and Bennett lives up to that promise with her more recent work which, I would say, is slightly more polished. But here too she captures something essential and beautiful about humanity and the roads we leave untrod.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mothers by Brit Bennett”

  1. I’m always up for books which capture the complexity of the church community – I hadn’t realised that was a part of this, and it sounds more appealing than I’d previously thought.

    1. It’s not necessarily the main focus of the novel but it is an important aspect of it and one I found interesting. And you might as well!

  2. Sounds as if she was trying too hard to find an angle that would make her book stand out from the crowd, but it sounds like an unnecessary distraction from a story that had enough to carry the book on its own. I often wonder why young writers seem to be advised to go down the “quirky” route, since the books that seem to appeal most to readers are good stories, plainly told.

    1. I’ve read a few books that have this sort of chorus-style narration and I’m never a fan. I get what she was trying to do here but I don’t think it added enough to the story to justify its use and, yes, ended up feeling like a technique for the sake of being different. I think her more recent novel shows a more mature writer so that’s a good thing!

  3. I’ve read a few books in which (typically) one summer changed everyone’s lives forever. I try to think back on my own life and ask if there are places in time when if I had done something differently, my life would be so different. For reasons, I don’t understand, I cannot follow through with this process and choose a time, despite Rolodex-ing my way through hard times.

    1. It is a pretty common trope, isn’t it? Now that you say that, I can think of seasons that definitely stand out and were memorable but I don’t know that any of them changed the whole trajectory of my life forever!

  4. First thing I noticed is how similar this cover is, and the cool colourful blobby cover of her latest book!
    I can’t say I’m excited by the idea of the mothers being lumped together as a chorus, because from my experience we are all so different, I’m just naturally resistant to us being grouped that way 🙂

    1. I can understand that! If it helps, The Mothers are less lumped in together because they are actually mothers and more so because they’re women of a certain age and interest. The Church Ladies might be a more accurate name. I don’t know if there’s a secular comparison but churches very often have a group of ladies, usually older, who take care of a lot of behind the scenes stuff. Making meals, organizing fundraisers etc. Very caring but also a ripe group for gossip and that’s what Bennett is trying to portray here, I think.

    1. She’s an author that I really see her writing getting stronger and more succinct between the two novels so it’s exciting to think what she’ll do next.

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