About the Book:
In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.
Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.
Until Frida has a very bad day.
The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.
Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.
A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.
This thought-provoking and terrifying book deserves to be on everyone’s must-read list. The author manages to weave in sarcasm and black humor into this almost unthinkable story. “Almost” because so many current events are leading to this book being actually realistic.
“I’m a bad mother, but I’m learning to be good.”
“I’m a narcissist and a danger to my child.”
This is what the mothers who are sent to an experimental program are forced to chant over and over again during their year of incarceration. Most of them have been sentenced for very minor incidences, but the level of Government control over childrearing, parental rights and the private lives of parents (mostly mothers) is ironclad. They have surrendered all rights to privacy and independent thought and behavior.
Frida is an overtired, overworked mother of baby Harriet who makes an unwise decision one day and leaves the baby unattended while she runs an errand. A neighbor reports the crying child to child protective services and they sweep in and remove Harriet to her father’s home after Harriet’s arrest. Frida’s ex-husband Gust left Frida for a younger, white woman with whom he was having an affair. Frida, Chinese-American, is treated like a vicious, immoral criminal right from the start. The social worker sets her up for failed supervised visits, which are disastrous, and the family court judge orders Frida to attend the school for mothers if she wants a chance to ever be reunited with Harriet.
What follows is a year of emotional and psychological torture by the “counselors”, supervisors and school. Non-white mothers are set up to fail. Rare telephone calls with their children are routinely suspended so that months pass without the women even being able to speak to their children. The mothers also later see that fathers, who attend a separate program, are treated completely different. Their phone rights are never taken away as punishment.
There is so much systemic racism built into the bizarre “rehabilitation” instruction that Frida soon begins to lose hope. Gust’s girlfriend Susannah, with whom Harriet is living, puts Harriet on a low carb diet with causes the baby to lose weight but she is not reported to the authorities. Of course because she is white.
The author perfectly captures the impossible standards by which good mothers are measure in our modern society, and also the danger of allowing the government control over our privacy and our personal choices. Most of this book is nightmarish, particularly the purpose introduction of robotic “dolls” with which each mother is expected to bond as if they were a human child. Because them others were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements, they cannot discuss any of the sadiscit measures being employed by the program. The dolls are built to measure certain “metrics” of the mothers, such as levels of emotion and attachment which the government will then use to determine whether or not they are “good” mothers.
Normal human emotion is not allowed and Frida’s whole world is turned upside down. Is any of this really necessary in order to keep children safe? This book raises very tough questions and leaves them up to the reader to decide. One of the important issues is how men and women are still judged so differently in our society, with women being held to a much higher standard.
Jessamine Chan has written a knockout of a debut novel. At times reminiscent of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’, this book will stay with me for a long time and should be required reading for anyone over the age of 16. ‘The School for Good Mothers’ is unforgettable!