How critical should a reviewer be of a first novel? This is the question I asked myself as I read The Mothers, the debut novel by Brit Bennett, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree who's written for the New Yorker, Jezebel, and the New York Times. There are, of course, brilliant first novels, but most of the time they’re the flawed result of a writer learning how to tell a story. Often they’re more indicative of talent than craftsmanship.
The Mothers (Riverhead Books; $26, out Oct. 11) falls into this category. It’s a novel full of authentic observations and complex moments, yet its parts never quite weave together in the way its author seems to intend.
The story revolves around Upper Room Chapel, a church in a black community in San Diego. Nadia Turner is a teenager whose mother has just committed suicide. To escape her grief, she begins secretly dating the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard. When Nadia discovers she’s pregnant, she gets an abortion, a big no-no in the religious community in which she lives. This event continues to affect the characters, and those they love, well into adulthood.
Bennett has an eye for emotional details, especially related to grief and emptiness. Before her mother’s death, Nadia felt like she was “being handed from person to person like a baton... Then one day, her mother’s hand was gone and she’d fallen, clattering to the floor.” As the title suggests, this novel is concerned with motherhood and mothering. The moms in this book are either stern, disapproving, or absent. Nadia becomes friends with Aubrey, a teenager whose mom has abandoned her. The girls bond over their loss, wondering “if they were the only ones who felt they didn’t know their mothers. Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.”
In this novel, love is a rare and costly commodity. The characters are both desperately seeking love and withholding it from others. It’s “that littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger… and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.” The Mothers seems to suggest that happiness, or at least peace, lies in avoiding the trouble of attaching others and in loving yourself instead.
Less successful are the many minor characters who appear and disappear like guest stars on a TV show, as well as the frequent changes in points of view. In the span of four pages, the novel dips into Nadia mom’s mind, Nadia age 4, Nadia in the present, Nadia at her mom’s funeral, and Nadia’s first kiss behind the church. That’s a lot of shifting even for a modernist master -- Virginia Woolf, say.
The Mothers takes its name from the church women of Upper Room, who speak in the first-person-plural “we” at the beginning of each chapter. These women, who are in their 80s and 90s, gossip about Nadia and her family. While individually named, the mothers are interchangeable and never come together as real entities or a convincing chorus. Instead they seem like a distraction from the real action of the novel, which is the love triangle between Luke, Nadia, and Aubrey.
It would be hard to write a book about a church community without either condemning that community or allowing religious symbolism to overtake the narrative. Bennett handles this by downplaying the religious beliefs of her characters. The mothers rarely mention Jesus, for example. Prayer to them isn’t communion with God but an act of empathy, where you “slip inside” the person you’re praying for. That's an interesting idea, but unlikely to be the thoughts of women so religious they practically live at church.
Since a great deal of the plot deals with teenage pregnancy, including a pastor paying for an abortion in a church conservative enough to protest health clinics, the lack of insight into belief feels unconvincing. It has the effect of hollowing out a narrative that doesn’t seem to want to talk about religion in the first place, despite the writer’s choice of a church as its setting.
The Mothers is strongest when dealing with the emotional entanglement of the young adults at its center, so much so that it might have missed its calling as a young adult novel. It is, however, a vivid story, with lots of juicy bits, and a satisfying, lyrical ending. Bennett’s gift for characters, and her ability to unpack emotions and make them feel real, means that I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from her in the future.
Brit Bennett appears at Green Apple Books on the Park on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Details here.