Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Mothers by Brit Bennett.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett is a novel about trying to find a space where you belong. She has taken three characters and showed us their scars—metaphorically and physically—and allows us to watch how those wounds continually heal and split open, spanning from their late teenage years to their late twenties. They search for a comfort in life that will propel them into happiness and understanding, and in the end we’re not sure if any of them are going to find it, but that’s the point.
The majority of the first act centers on Nadia Turner. She’s a 17-year-old girl trying to come to terms with her late mother’s suicide. Because of her friends’ discomfort with the subject of death, Nadia is seemingly cast out of her social circle. She may be projecting her fear of exclusion onto her friends, but it doesn’t make the loneliness any less lonely. In her solitude, she meets Luke, a jock a few years older than her working at a run-down seafood joint in their small Californian town. Luke never went to college because a football injury prevented him from getting scholarships. Whether it’s because she now finds herself lonely or she’s trying to distract herself from her mother’s death—or, likely, a combination of the two—Nadia starts sleeping with Luke.
The relationship ends and for the rest of her summer she befriends Aubrey through working at Upper Room Church together. They bond over a loss of their mothers—Nadia’s through death and Aubrey’s through men. Nadia realizes her preconceived notions of Aubrey were incorrect. It’s a nice running theme in the book that a person’s outer life doesn’t necessarily define who they are as a person. Bennett takes the time to move assumptions around to show us that no one is without secrets.
The format of the book is interesting. At the start of each chapter, there are alternating first-person perspectives. The Mothers, a group of elderly women in a prayer group at Upper Room gather small bits of information they overhear around the church. From these bits of gossip and rumor, they infer stories about people’s lives. There are these small sections in the collective voice, and then we are taken to a third-person perspective about Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey. Though, early in the novel, they say, “… we heard young folks joking about how drunk Nadia Turner had been at some beach party. Then we became young again, or that is to say, we became her.” The story is pieced together by the assumptions and speculations of unreliable narrators. In theory, this is an interesting choice; but in practice, I feel a little cheated by the emotions Bennett was able to evoke during the third-person sections (which is the majority of the book). With the inclusion of the collective voice, Bennett doesn’t allow the story to stand fully on its own, instead framing it within the Mothers’ point of view.
A few times in the novel Bennett moves the story ahead a substantial amount of time. From one chapter to the next, without any warning, we’ll see changes in Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey’s life. Some chapters will be a continual flow in the timeline, then the next we could be three or four years in the future. Life events had taken place, but we missed them unfold. Rather, we are given brief moments of back story to fill in the missing years. This move in time sometimes feels like a cheat—and maybe it is—in that Bennett doesn’t have to take the time to fully develop character motivations. It’s easier to know something and accept it, as opposed to taking the steps to unfold it authentically.
While I raised an eyebrow at the method of time jumps, I never questioned the character changes. Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are all fully formed with understandable and difficult moments in their lives. Late in the book when Luke begins mourning something that happened nearly a decade prior, I can buy into it. Even if Bennett didn’t take the time to show us every step of his evolution, she took enough time to develop a character that has the potential for this reaction and outcome.
In the end, my complaints are minor: I don’t think Bennett needed to meld the multiple first- with the third-person perspectives because all it did was muddle a heartache of a story; but at the same time, if she was trying to illustrate the false notions of first impressions, it was a good effort. There was slight confusion as I needed to reorient myself when there was a major time lapse that resulted in a choppy pace and sometimes clunky progression of the story. But, most importantly, I wish Bennett would have given us more time with the characters. They’re not always likable and they have their flaws, but that’s what makes them human and so damn appealing as a reader.