The Mothers by Britt Bennett

28815371Fiction — print. Riverhead Books, 2016. 288 pgs. Gift from a friend.

Grief-stricken over the sudden death of her mother, seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner starts acting out in the ways “The Mothers”, the older women of her church, disapprove of. One of those ways is her sexual relationship with the preacher’s son, Luke, who is older than her and still mourning the end of his football career.

Luke wants to keep their relationship on the down low; Nadia thinks his request comes from a romantic place. Yet when Luke fails to pick up Nadia from the clinic after the abortion procedure, Nadia realizes his push for privacy came from a darker, more sinister place. She refuses to have anything to do with Luke, leaning on her budding friendship with the church-loving, outcast teenager Aubrey to get her through her last summer in California before she starts college in Michigan.

In leaving Luke and their shared community in Oceanside behind, Nadia inadvertently ends up leaving Aubrey behind. When Luke suffers a debilitating injury, Aubrey shows up as a member of the church’s outreach program for the sick and the shut-ins and convinces him he can still have a fulfilling life. A life that, eventually, includes being married to Aubrey.

Yet Nadia’s return to Oceanside reminds Luke of what might have been, and the secret Nadia thought was just between the two of them ends up coming to light. Much to the Mothers’ chagrin (and, truthfully, delight over the new fodder for gossip).

I held off on reading Bennett’s debut novel because it received a tremendous amount of buzz following its publication in 2016 and I worried it would not live up to the hype. Thankfully, the novel did — so much so that I ended up reading it in one sitting.

Abortion can be a sensitive topic and difficult to handle in such a way that it doesn’t feel like the author is pushing an agenda. While I can understand why some view Bennett as anti-choice based on her novel, I appreciated how Bennett showed the hypocrisy of her characters’ thinking on the topic.

There is the blatant hypocrisy of those who champion against abortion yet are readily willing to pay for one when it is their child in trouble. And there is the hypocrisy of the Mothers, who blame and condemn Nadia for her decisions yet never reached out after the death of her mother or offered to do more than judge her.

But there is the more subtle hypocrisy of Luke, a man who lays blame on everyone but himself. A man who mourns what could have been, Luke never takes into account the costs of the other decision that he and Nadia could have made. And he never once considers Nadia’s life or that of his child; everything is a rosy picture in his fantasy.

Nadia, for her part, has moments where she wonders, but Nadia has also been through the physical and emotional wringer of losing a parent. And she remains largely unwavering in her decision as the years past, even as she reverts back to bad habits. The novel, ultimately, becomes a reminder that the right choice for one is not the right choice for another. Or, maybe not the right choice when circumstances have changed in the decades after.

The one part of the novel that did not work for me was the interjection of the collective voice of the Mothers. I understand why Bennett decided to include them in the narrative, but their interjection stops being a fluid part of the narrative as Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey age.

That said, I would have to agree with the praise lavished on Bennett’s novel. It’s a lyrical, moving story about an individual’s longing for something — love, friendship, truth — in the world. I hope to see more from this debut novelist.

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