‘The School for Good Mothers’: When a mother’s very bad day becomes a bad life

This review contains minor spoilers for The School for Good Mothers.

We all have bad days, some worse than others. Sometimes it’s a bad hair day, or you lock yourself out of your house or your car. On others you break a nail and then your phone. On Frida’s very bad day, she left her one-year-old daughter home alone for a couple of hours. In her debut novel The School for Good Mothers, author Jessamine Chan walks us through a world so much like our own, but one in which Child Protective Services (CPS) enjoys practically unmitigated power and mothers like Frida are at their mercy.

Chan’s novel follows Frida, a 39-year-old, Chinese-American woman and somewhat recently single mother to little Harriet, whom she shares with her ex-husband Gust. Gust, a forty-something-year-old white man, is now living with his mistress-turned-girlfriend Susanna: an Instagram-loving redhead almost half his age. After Frida’s very bad day, CPS worms their way into her life and Harriet is to live with her father indefinitely. They’re changing both the rules and the game, and Frida’s unfortunate enough to be in the test area. She’s one of the very first to get a bitter taste of the state’s new approach to reforming so-called bad parents and first it’s the cameras. They’re placed in almost every corner of her home. Then it’s the footage analysis. How sad does she look, with the longing that Harriet’s absence breeds? At the same time, they’re keeping tags on her. What is she Googling? How often is she Googling it? Following this, they determine it’s simply not enough to plant their feet in her home, wedge themselves in between Frida and her daughter. Frida must be reformed from the inside out. She’s clearly a bad mother, a narcissist with accountability problems, but she can learn to be good. To do this, Frida requires a year in training: at the school for good mothers. Through hands-on training, comprised of several units and lessons, she and other mothers must atone for their wrongdoings. They must learn how to mother correctly, or cease to do it all. With these new rules set, Frida must play their game if she’s to be with Harriet at all.

Throughout the novel, I was almost taken-aback by the believability of it all. This isn’t the stuff of fantasy or some far-off dystopia: Chan’s story is well within the realm of possibility. We live in an ever-increasing surveillance state, and the propensity for government’s and state bodies to use this style of surveillance in one’s private home isn’t exactly low. If anything, it’s probably happening already somewhere somehow and this realisation made for a for Frida’s story just that little bit more upsetting. At times it was equally frustrating. Overworked social workers with clipped tones and rigid approaches are who Frida must appease and her family. Events wholly out of her control are blamed on her, on her obviously poor mothering.

Chan writes in the third-person, with Frida as our protagonist, and the story is ultimately told using her eyes and ears. We get to know Frida inside and out; the writing is well-paced, steady, and consistent; descriptive and believable. As the reader, we’re put head-first into her complex feelings, such as those she has about the messy end of her marriage, her regret about how she handled some parts of it; wondering how it would have turned out if she’d done things differently. Her depth as a character was substantial, and how she feels practically guide us through the novel’s events. Frida also has lots of feelings about her upbringing, her college years, her sexual history, her Chinese immigrant parents and their experiences in white America. Race and gender play massive parts in this novel, seemingly underpinning much of Frida’s life experience, as they do in real life for women like her and other women of colour. She’s the only Asian mother in the school, the only Asian person in a room at some points. In the school, there are Black and Latina mothers who are also treated unfairly, with little no attempt at sympathising due to their race. There’s a glaringly obvious difference in how mothers of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds are treated. Some are afforded more chances, just a little more empathy and understanding, than others. Some mothers are hitters, subscribers to corporal punishment. Others are selfish, stuffing their kids in cramped spaces when they feel like it. But others are simply victim to their circumstances, to poverty, to single parenthood, to a lack of resources, to human emotion.

In the end, The School for Good Mothers earns four out of five stars from me. The unique premise made for an addictive read: I stayed up late and woke up early to finish this book when I did, At times, the writing felt flat and a little stiff, though I get the sense Frida is a character to whom those descriptors would apply anyway. Ultimately I just wasn’t blown away by this book in the very end. I was a little mind blown but not blown away. That said, one of the greatest parts about this book is the murky waters of Frida’s motherhood. By the turn of the final page, it feels like there’s some debate to be had about whether she’s a good or bad mother, especially when compared to her fellow students, and what fundamentally forms either kind.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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