By Jessamine Chan, 2022
I wanted to love this book. It’s title and description promises precisely the kind of work I am calling for in my PhD thesis: stories that tell the truth about motherhood, that call into question the so-called “maternal instinct.” And this novel does exactly those things. However, an important aspect of introducing these ideas to readers is also to make the book engaging and interesting. Unfortunately, The School for Good Mothers falls flat in its storytelling.
It begins with Frida, a stressed out and exhausted single mother who clearly loves her baby but is at her wit’s end, rushing to the police station to collect her child. Earlier that day, without thinking, she leaves her baby at home, alone, to run a quick errand. Her neighbors report her, authorities are called, and her parenting abilities are questioned. As a result, she must go to school to learn how to be a “good” mother.
The excellent thing about this book is that it examines how we define “good” mothers, and makes a mockery of the entire concept. Mothers are humans and must do the best they can. I would argue a good mother keeps her child safe and makes them feel loved. Beyond that, it’s up to the individual. However, this school has more prescriptive rules in place. The teachers tell the mothers: “The right instincts, the right feelings, the ability to make split-second, safe, nurturing, loving decisions.” And: “A mother is always patient. A mother is always kind. A mother is always giving. A mother never falls apart.” Ironically, it is the robot training “children” in the school that are more human than the mothers Frida and other students are forced to become. (We could probably spend a long time talking about how a supposed “instinct” can be taught.)
Like the beginning of the novel, all of the truly critical, plot-turning scenes are told in flashback or summary form. I think this is the major flaw of the novel. As a result, it reads like a diary of tedious lessons and waiting. The reader is never a part of the moments we wait for — such as big tests in school that will determine Frida’s future and her final court hearing to determine her fitness to parent.
At the same time, Frida herself is distant and closed-off from the reader. Although the story is told in close third person, we rarely get close to her emotionally. Time and again she is kept away from her daughter, but without an understanding of the distress she feels, it is difficult to understand her actions.
This novel is classic high-concept, with lots of important questions raised about the culture of motherhood and the problematic ways we judge fitness as a society. The plot relies entirely on the day to day lessons at the school, which is a fascinating premise. But as a reading experience this novel falls flat. It feels more like a field report than a novel. Two stars.