The best novels, the best stories, stay with you a while, don’t they? I finished The Mothers, Brit Bennett’s 2016 debut, a few weeks ago, and I thought about it for several days after. It pops up in my crowded head, still, every now and again, whenever I read about an African American church, or think about the relationships we all have (or don’t) with our mothers, or consider how hard it is sometimes to be young.
Bennett’s novel — it might be the best novel I’ve read this year — touches on all these subjects and does it so, so beautifully. Set in contemporary Southern California, The Mothers is a story of a young woman and her first stuttering steps into womanhood, of the people around her who love her, who watch over her, who help her and who stand in her way. It is a story of decisions made and their consequences.
Bennett is a young African American, and the mothers of the title are, in one reading, the sometimes overbearing and always overseeing women who run the African American church that plays a central role in the novel. But this story and its themes are universal, too, as universal as motherhood and everything that entails.
The book opens with Nadia, in her last year of high school, dealing with the suicide of her mother and a life unfurling in front of her that is suddenly, unstoppably uncertain. She falls for a mostly well-meaning but flawed son of a preacher. Their relationship and all the damage that it does — to them as youngsters, and to those around them for many years to come — forms the backbone of this wonderful novel.
What makes this very real and very heartbreaking story sing is Bennett’s writing. In a pivotal scene between Nadia and Luke, the preacher’s son:
He stepped toward her and the sudden movement made her drop everything in her hands, her purse and shoes and keys clattering to the driveway. She jutted her arms out before he could come closer. He stopped, his jaw clenched, and she couldn’t tell whether he wanted to slap her or hug her. Both hurt, his anger and his love, as they stood together in the dark driveway, his heart beating against her hands.
That might seem melodramatic to some. But to me, the pace, the brevity, the simple beauty of the author’s word choice — verbs like clattering and jutted and clenched — are amazing. The scene is palpable.
“Both hurt, his anger and his love …” Just amazing.
The grief that Nadia deals with — repressed as it is with her mother, as raw as it after the hard decisions she has to make, as unrelenting as it is when it comes to Luke — is a constant theme in the book, too. Anyone who has ever grieved can relate to this:
Her stomach leapt, like she’d missed a stair. Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.
The book pops between narrators, and one of them is the voice of the mothers of the church, self-appointed and all-knowing moralists. Their viewpoint, even on something as painful as the death of Nadia’s mother, is unbending.
Like the church, maybe. Maybe, indeed, like mothers:
We have known hard deaths, but the difference was that Elise Turner had chosen one. Not a handful of pills to stretch sleep, not a running motor in a closed garage, but a pistol to the head. How could she choose to destroy herself so violently? … She had not been called home to be with the Lord — she had simply chosen to leave. Imagine, having the gall to choose when so many had that choice taken away from them. How dare she opt for a hard death when the rest of us were trying to manage the hard lives we were given?
The Mothers is the kind of book I look for, something that I can relate to but something, too, that gives me a peek into a world that I know nothing about. If I have one critique, it is that the story seems, at points, to teeter on the edge of a too-familiar soap opera. But the writing — oh, the writing — balances it, saves it from going over the edge. And it left me with something to savor, to remember.