The School for Good Mothers – the final review

As promised a week or so ago, I’m posting a review for The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chen. This will be my final word on the book, but if any of you read it I’d love to hear what you think about it, and we can carry on the conversation!

Here’s the review I wrote:

The opening sentence, “We have your daughter.” would send a chill up any parent’s spine, and it does for Frida Lui in Jessamine Chen’s, The School for Good Mothers. “Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a parent’s devotion.” (taken from the inside jacket) Chen maintains this tension and suspense through the last page. Her ability to delve so deeply into the characters’ experience and the sense of place–the institution–taps into the reader’s emotions, and contributes to the conversation of what is proper mothering and parenting, and what is the government’s role–if any–in deciding.  The School for Good Mothers is a dystopian novel that I think may appeal especially to Frida’s contemporaries–women in their 30s and 40s.

For those unfamiliar with dystopian literature, it’s defined as ‘An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.’ – think, The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games. There’s built-in bleakness and tension that can make for heavy reading.

I found writing this review a challenge. Some of the comments that went back and forth after a previous post addressed who are we to suggest what other people would enjoy reading, and how can someone else determine what I might like? On any given day my own tastes change because of the mood I’m in and what’s going on that day. I’m not a huge fan of dystopian literature, but I know others are so I didn’t want my bias to sway too much. At the same time, my bias does influence my reading and take on a book. I tried to cover that dilemma by the wording may appeal especially to, and being specific about the demographic. (More about that later.)

The star rating was even more of a challenge. On Goodreads a 3 is ‘I liked it.’ and a 4 is ‘I really liked it.’ I liked it okay (which is actually the 2 rating on Goodreads), not so much for the story itself, but for the discussion potential. (More on that later.) I hope my response, Her ability to delve so deeply into the characters’ experience and the sense of place–the institution–taps into the reader’s emotions, and contributes to the conversation of what is proper mothering and parenting, and what is the government’s role–if any–in deciding explains a little bit why my rating was a 3 and not a 2 or a 4. Had I the option of giving a 3.5 I might have, because I really don’t like giving 3s.

It’s later and now I can share some of what else was going on inside my head. In The School for Good Mothers there is bleakness and heavy reading. Getting back to the points I reference above, the demographics and the discussions, they meld here. My Rowdy Readers and I are each old enough to be Frida’s mom or her grandma, and we all had similar reactions to the book. I’ve since talked with other old folks and they too felt some of the same tweaks as they read. One thing, we kept looking for at least a few moments of light. I’m not talking humor or levity, but what a friend calls breathing spaces. Even in the times Frida grasped for hope of seeing her daughter, that hope never fully realized before it was squelched. There was nothing to lift the character, or the reader, out of the marching pace of the narrative. As an old woman and a woman of faith I understand that life is not easy, yet from both of these vantage points I know life isn’t all bleak either. So I wondered if some of the rave reviews are because younger women identify so closely with Frida, that ‘YES! I know exactly how she feels!’

Which leads to one of the discussions. As I read the book I kept thinking, I know Frida. Obviously not all young women suffer from anxiety and/or panic attacks, or feel completely overwhelmed by life and question their every move, but I seem to know quite a few. One recently had I. AM. ENOUGH.  tattooed on the inside of her forearm as a daily reminder that she is.

Remember this woman? She was born in the late 70s and early 80s and was the brave new woman who could do it all – bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, read the children their bedtime story tickety-tock, and still manage to keep her husband happy – all while singing and smelling lovely with the scent of Enjoli. Even back then Charlene Ventura, a public relations and funding director for the YWCA wrote: “I hope women and men are aware of the destructive nature of this claim and realize the sharing of domestic and work roles are the only way to bring about full equality. Unfortunately, my guess is that a lot of women and men will buy into this concept.”

Women have always worked outside the home, but this commercial and its message raised the stakes of self-worth and failure. Most of us soon realized we couldn’t do it all . . . or did we? Or did we somehow simply transfer that message to our daughters?

Anxiety and depression aren’t new, so maybe young women like Jessamine Chen, Simone Biles, and those in my circle–our daughters–are brave enough to get the discussion going.

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