Book Review: The Mothers

The Mothers

It’s only been out since last October, but there has already been a ton of hype about this book. For good reason – The Mothers by Brit Bennett is every bit as dazzling as you’ve been hearing. She has already won some prestigious awards, and I hope she wins a whole bunch more. Everything, actually. I want her to win everything and then write a million more books. This book left me in a fugue state for a few days after I finished it; I had a hard time moving on to a new story because these characters are so deeply entrenched in my heart.

I’ve noticed that a lot of reviews avoid mentioning the central event of this book: a main character, a teenage girl mourning her mother, has an abortion in the first chapter. If you hear anyone tell you that this book is pro- or anti- anything, please run away from them, ignore their opinion, and read this book anyway. Because The Mothers is not interested in taking a stand on a hot button issue. Brit Bennett is too deft a writer to bore us with a lecture; this book is about people, how they got into a sad situation, and what happened to all of them after they got out of it. As with all great writing, it’s not what this book is about, it’s how it’s about what it’s about. She moves gracefully from character to character, letting us watch them as they collide and hurt and heal each other.

I fell in love with every single character, even when they acted thoughtless or unkindly. My favorite touch is the way Bennett begins each chapter from the point of view of the elder women of an African American church in Oceanside, California, who comment on the unfolding action like a Greek chorus:

We would’ve told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living, we have known men. Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.

My god, that paragraph – that littlebit trapped sweetness. I had to stop reading to catch my breath and let those words roll around in my head for a while. The rhythms of this book remindsme a lot of early Toni Morrison. And Brit Bennett is SO young. If this is what her debut novel looks like, I can’t even imagine how great her later work is going to be.

The characters grow more complex as the book progresses; as they grow older they also become more difficult and more interesting. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say she nailed the conclusion. It’s the perfect combination of bitter and sweet, ending exactly the way it was always supposed to end, even if it wasn’t necessarily perfectly happy.

Have you read The Mothers yet? What did you think?

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