This book contains some potentially triggering themes/scenes, check content warnings before reading.
Like a lot of people, I was reading a lot in the first year of the pandemic.
Autumn 2020 came around and I realized I hadn’t read a book written by a Black woman in a while. One of Brit Bennett’s two published novels was on every list of recommendations for titles by new-ish Black female authors I found, so the search for my next read quickly became a choice between Bennett’s 1st novel “The Mothers” or “The Vanishing Half” which had only recently been published.
Again, this was during the point of the pandemic when we were still using the word ‘uncertain’ a lot. On top of that, I was indefinitely overstaying my visa because Australia was severely limiting how many citizens they let back in each day. I wasn’t allowed to work, meaning I was blowing through savings, and just generally very stressed out.
I didn’t need a book about unicorns and pixies and the magic of friendship, but at the same time a book about dead mothers, teenage pregnancy and a seedy love triangle sounded like a bit much for me specifically at the time.
So I picked up “The Vanishing Half”. And I loved it. Bennett’s exploration of belonging, colorism and identity was incredible. She made you care about every member of an ensemble cast of diverse and layered characters, somehow satisfyingly writing half a dozen character arcs set across several decades.
Fast forward almost 2 years and I’ve finally read “The Mothers”. I couldn’t tell you why it’s taken me this long, but it was a mistake. It’s even better than “The Vanishing Half”.
Like I said, it can be a bit heavy in moments, especially depending on your own history with some of the subject matter. But that’s a testament to how much thought Bennett puts into the nuances of very personal themes. A lot of books play these things for shock, feigning depth while really reducing sensitive topics to buzzwords.
The premise: Not long after her mother’s suicide and not long before heading off to college, Nadia has a summer fling with Luke, her church’s pastor’s son, and ends up pregnant. In the years that follow, a love triangle develops between Luke, Nadia and her best friend Aubrey.
‘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 littelbit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.’
That’s an early aside from the titular Mothers, a small chunk of the gorgeous contemplative narration this book is packed with. Almost every chapter of “The Mothers” opens with a few paragraphs where the collective consciousness of the mothers of Upper Room – the church much of plot is centered around – takes over the narration, commenting on the events unfolding before switching to a more omnipotent 3rd person that most of the book is written in.
Their shared wisdom, as occasional as it comes, goes a long way to color the narrative. Motherhood, and everything that does and does not come with it, is unsurprisingly a huge theme and it never feels like the matriarchal gaze of the mothers is far off from what’s happening despite them playing virtually no part in the plot.
Just as present is the specter of grief, following Nadia and others constantly. At times Bennett attacks the topic head on, reflecting on it in narration or through Nadia’s own thoughts. Other times it’s subtly injected into character’s actions, constant without dominating anyone’s motivations.
Grief takes on the appropriate weight in different moments, never too heavy or too light – I’ve never read a book that balanced this so well, let alone while simultaneously handling so many other heavy themes with the same amount of care.
Nadia is the main character, but we spend time following Aubrey and Luke as well. Every perspective switch feels more purposeful than ‘the plot centers on you now, take the wheel’. I never found myself thinking ‘I wish I’d seen this from Aubrey’s perspective instead of Nadia’ or any other version of that sentiment. Bennett is in total control of every arc, and as a reader I trusted she was making the best decisions to flesh out each character.
Similarly to “The Vanishing Half” the multiple perspectives layer the plot, but also the thematic exploration. So much of the book pivots on the interplay between men and women, the societal structures that exist to limit and empower.
Luke’s perspective on Nadia’s pregnancy is a surprisingly refreshing point of view, but far more often what’s most interesting is what Luke – a very heteronormative former high school football star – doesn’t pick up on interacting with Nadia & Aubrey, or the feelings he doesn’t allow himself to grapple with.
Even ignoring the wider themes, “The Mothers” is an engaging, well-designed story. I like to take my time with books that are this thoughtful, but that was hard to do because I was so keen to find out what was going to happen next.
I normally find love triangles vapid and boring, but this one works because the story’s really not about who ends up with who. Without spoiling, all of that is pretty clear cut and takes a back seat to the growth and decay of each relationship within the triangle.
It’s paced perfectly, moving through the years with time jumps that feel necessary, not like cop-outs. Each relationship, inside and outside the love triangle, is given enough focus to be worthy of worrying about and believing in.
The only gripe I really have is some elements of the ending, which I won’t spoil, but does feel just a bit rushed. Not to say it was, Bennett made a clear decision to end things the way she did.
It’s like one of those ‘choose the most correct option’ multiple choice questions. It was a correct option. I just don’t think it was the most correct option – not that there was a particular ending I thought would be.
Still, the ending is nowhere near unsatisfying enough for me to not love this book or recommend it to anyone and everyone. There’s so much more I could dive into but not without spoiling.
“The Mothers” is heartfelt without being saccharine. Realistic & compelling without being depressing, gripping without over-doing the drama. Brit Bennett is officially one of my favorite writers and I cannot wait for what she’s cooking up next.