“I’m a bad mother, but I’m learning to be good.”
Jessamine Chan’s dystopian novel “School of Good Mothers” is by no means perfect – neither is its heroine, Frida. However, Chan has built both a novel and a character that demonstrates the desperate desire and exhaustion of motherhood with a level of depth that few other literary works have reached.
“School for Good Mothers” focuses on Frida Liu, a Chinese-American mother living in a near-future and seemingly normal version of Philadelphia, who is exhausted from fighting with her ex-husband for custody of their baby, Harriet. Frida’s postpartum depression, Zoloft withdrawals, and exhaustion produce a state of fatigue that causes her to leave home and Harriet for a few hours. Back home, she is confronted with the police and her ex-husband who send her for a year to a re-education camp, where she will learn to be a good mother. The central part of the novel takes place in “the school”, located on an abandoned college campus, where mothers are subjected to strange and unspeakable horrors. If Frida is not successful, she will lose her ability to see Harriet.
Motherhood is often referred to in art, but until recently it has rarely been contextualized within the confines of humans. Maternal mental health, in particular, is neglected; more than one in ten mothers struggle with postpartum depression, but the subject has long been considered taboo. Frida Liu, the protagonist of Chan in “The School of Good Mothers”, is deeply depressed. She’s also a single mother fighting for custody. As Frida flounders, the novelist displays a tension between the needs of an exhausted mother and her baby.
In demonstrating this tension, Chan undertakes a daunting task: to persuade the reader to see the humanity of a mother who, in fact, neglected her daughter. The novel is a great, compelling commentary on what it means to cope with mental illness as a mother. Frida struggles with herself, trying to change; However, a lack of support resulting from society’s refusal to see mothers as people sends her character even further into grief.
‘School for Good Mothers’ not only underscores the challenge all mothers face in being ‘good’ in the eyes of society, but also makes room for increased pressure on women and mothers of color to be ‘good’ in the eyes of society. they assimilate to the status quo. One specific way Chan achieves this is through the character of Frida’s ex-husband’s mistress and new girlfriend, Susanna. While Frida is learning to be a “good” mother, Susanna deals with Harriet with methods that seem to be taken straight from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop: she is the epitome of “waking” white motherhood and of pseudoscience, loaded with essential oils and organic foods. instead of medical necessities.
Additionally, women of different races are treated differently by “school”: White and Asian women are offered easier jobs, while black and Hispanic women are regularly forced to do heavy manual labor. In addition, these mothers are offered less forgiveness from the government, as well as the camp administration. Frida is relatively privileged, but she is constantly singled out by others for being “extraterrestrial” – as the only Asian American person in the camp, Frida is judged on her “otherness”. Chan demonstrates different levels of a specific racial hierarchy in “The School for Good Mothers” in a way that resembles a microcosm of American tensions as well as a perfect representation of how the strict socio-economic expectations of motherhood most harm marginalized communities of color.
Throughout Frida’s time at “school,” she is constantly corrected by her supervisors for being too cold and apathetic in her parenting style, when she thinks she is simply reflecting her own more than adequate upbringing. ‘School for Good Mothers’ highlights the challenges mothers face, especially those with intersectional identities: Are normalized parenting styles in marginalized communities just misunderstood by a predominantly white society? Or are they harmful? Frida turns this dichotomy around in her mind, ultimately believing in the inferiority of her parenthood the longer she stays in “school”. Frida’s own parents, however, really love and take care of her; they support Frida as she struggles and cry when they see her being abused. Chan vividly illustrates the difficulties and insecurities of raising children: competition, forced heterogeneity, suppression. When mothers live in an echo chamber of opinions about what is “best” for their child, they feel the need to hide their complexities. Frida is constantly forced to hide many parts of her identity in order to be a “good mother,” which is a realistic portrayal of how many are meant to be parents today.
One of the weaker aspects of the story was her lack of commitment to other main ideas outside of or overlapping with the struggles of motherhood. Sometimes it seemed like Chan wanted to take stock of the issues facing less economically advantaged mothers, but almost all of his main characters were well off. Chan also seemed to want to use the opposition “School for Good Fathers” to highlight the particular pressure on mothers as opposed to fathers, but did not make any deep remarks on the subject, nor did the introduction of the counterpart. “School” for fathers provides meaningful character development for mothers. Other thematic divergences, such as the inconsistent characterization and unclear explanation of the dystopian setting, left this novel feeling more like a first draft than a final, complete work. The real triumph comes from the personal and intimate portrayal of Frida’s struggles trying to be “good”.
Make no mistake, parts of the story seem too capricious. A characteristic of good dystopian fiction is its plausibility and hypothetical history; However, some aspects of “The School of Good Mothers” seem heavy and unexplained, so much so that it was difficult to accept them as credible. The premise that Frida is sent back to parental rehabilitation camp for leaving her baby alone for a few hours seems overkill for a government system so vaguely touched upon in the novel. Plus, the lack of motivation provided to most of the characters in the novel made them feel like caricatures. “School” leaders such as Ms. Khoury and Ms. Russo felt like one-note villains who were unfriendly in their actions and words; it was hard to believe that by torturing and separating troubled mothers from their children, they offered false sympathies because they “get it” – they have a niece! However, if you take those parts out, what’s left is the intense story of a complex character who struggles with mental illness while doing her best to be a good mother.
The middle part of the novel, in which Frida is sent to the real “School of Good Mothers”, drags on. This is not necessarily a mistake – in fact, the form of the novel vividly portrays the deep depression that Frida is sinking into. However, the unnecessary abundance of detail hangs over the book. This novel would be best read in chunks, for it can sometimes be read as if the deeply flawed Frida were pulling the reader with her. Yet in its redemptive parts, Frida’s emotions are so detailed that they seem tangible: whenever Frida interacts with Harriet, whether through a phone call, a social worker, or even through her thoughts. , the stressful desperation is overwhelming. The most exciting part of the novel is the conclusion, which is a wild and vague reversal of the beginning that leaves the reader in shock.
While there were definite flaws in “School of Good Mothers,” the book delivers the raw emotion of a complex antihero in a rare way. The quick bursts of feelings are enough to keep the reader (though not entirely satisfied) as they weave their way through the novel. Plus, the little mentions of Frida’s parents doing their best to take care of her are incredibly ingrained. The book isn’t perfect, but Jessamine Chan’s novel is nothing but an intense, messy, and sometimes beautiful portrayal of motherhood that will cause readers to question their perceptions of what it really means to be. a “good mother”.
Book Beat Editor-in-Chief Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Daily Arts Contributor Isabella Kassa can be reached at email@example.com.