Each year is typically filled with a smattering of good debut novels, a handful or two of great ones, and a couple of undeniable standouts. The latter are the exceptional novels, the rare ones that read as if they were written by a seasoned novelist. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers (Riverhead Books, October 11th) falls into this select category.
Bennett, reared in Southern California, and a graduate of the prestigious University of Michigan MFA program, leans on the surroundings of her life to create what could simply be referred to as a coming-of-age novel. Yet, as the chapters carry forward, and the plot weaves, intwining in miraculous and unexpected ways, it becomes clear that The Mothers is so much more than a coming-of-age story; it’s reach is universal.
At the outset, seventeen year old Nadia is grieving the loss of her mother to suicide. As expected, she is a mess and quickly turns to a forbidden relationship with the pastor’s son, Luke, twenty-one years of age. Like many rash decisions made when in the throes of loss, the union leads to an unintended consequences that will stick with Nadia and Luke for the rest of their lives.
What starts out as what could be viewed as a traditional love story, swiftly evolves into a book that tackles many themes. Nadia becomes good friends with Aubrey, a bond formed for the mutual feelings of the loss of their mothers in different manners. Bennett interweaves race, the church, and coping with loss in subtle but provocative symmetry.
Told in a panning third person perspective, we watch as Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke mature from naive young people to slightly less young people that are now faced with questions of: What if? This works unsuspectingly, just as the feeling of invulnerability of youth slips away quicker than anyone can ever predict or imagine. Some of the most sterling moments come at the start of chapters where the perspective switches from third person to the “we.” Impressively, the novel touches on the old proverb: “It takes a town to raise a child,” while simultaneously capturing the art of intrigue and gossip that runs rampant in a community with too little excitement, and too much time on their hands to wonder about the things hiding beneath the surface.
Written in easily digestible prose that, at times, sneaks up with a fiery elegance, The Mothers reaches a level of appeal that very few “serious” books reach: The careful intersection of literary and genre fiction which is delectable enough for casual readers while inhabiting a deceptive depth for those searching for a plethora of subtext.
With admirable precision, Bennett has created a trio of main characters that are wholly human. Flawed, imperfect young people who make us question our morality in the face of the sins committed over the course of the years that pass throughout the narrative. And still, with each awful act by Nadia, Aubrey, or Luke, we root for them to find happiness because there is so much good in their hearts and minds despite their obvious shortcomings.
As the title suggests, the main focus is the complicated relationships that exist between mothers and daughters. Yes, there is a lot more than just that here, but the central draw, the foundation that the book is built on, is the ways in which the mother/daughter relationship changes meaning as life continues to churn forward.
Brit Bennett has crafted a timeless yarn with The Mothers. A story of incredible loss, of the footprints we leave behind, and of the indescribable possibility of longing for something more than ourselves.