I had high hopes for this book. Seems like everyone I know was going on about how heartfelt and heartbreaking it was. But it did not break my heart, and that was disappointing. Let’s discuss.
Summary: Nadia Turner, seventeen, recently lost her mother to suicide (not a spoiler! you learn this on like page 2). She is beautiful, smart, going to Michigan on a scholarship. After her mother’s death, she’s grieving, hanging out with her new church-going bff with Aubrey, looking forward to getting out of Dodge for college…and covertly dating the pastor’s boy Luke. And you know what they say about preacher’s sons.
So it starts there, and then follows the intertwined loves and friendships of Aubrey, Nadia, and Luke over that summer and the next several years. Generally, the book is about how the choices they made, the secrets they keep, their family’s choices, and the bonds they form that summer shape their lives and destinies.
The title The Mothers refers to both the elderly matriarchs of the church (who had occasional Greek chorus interludes between chapters, and these were easily my favorite parts of the book) and the ways that mothers shape our lives–the different, essential ways that mothers know, and love, and grieve. Bennet does this well, but not enough. I wanted more sage wisdom, less teenage angst. But when Bennet nails it–an emotion, a phrase, a look–she nails it. She is a great writer, but this book just didn’t satisfy me.
I can’t really talk about my feelings for this book without a serious SPOILER WARNING! You have been warned! Stop reading if you don’t want to know everything!
Luke gets Nadia pregnant. She is 17 and she is on her way to college. She wants and gets an abortion. He doesn’t pick her up at the clinic afterwards, although he promised he would. (Bad move, dude.) Nadia spends the rest of the book (many years, through college and grad school) thinking about the alternate future for the baby she aborted, missing Luke, dating guys she can’t/won’t marry. The abortion eventually, many years later, ruins both her reputation back home and, in what I thought was actually a very well-done and surprising ending, their church, of which Luke’s dad is the pastor.
Here’s the thing. I had an unexpected pregnancy once, when I was young. Dude wanted an abortion; I miscarried but absolutely would have gotten one. I left the dude. I went to grad school. I dated other people. And now, years later, I think about it approximately…never. I do not note that potential baby’s birthday. I do not think about the alternate timeline. It did not change who I am or what I wanted in life.
So it was very hard for me to believe that Nadia did not want the baby, did not have the baby, went to college AND law school, dated other cool and considerate dudes, didn’t speak to Luke for years, and still felt soooo bad about it and sooooo regretful about the abortion and sooooooo nostalgic for/in love with Luke that she went back to him, and resumed their affair years later WHILE HE WAS MARRIED TO HER BEST FRIEND omg.
I don’t mean I don’t think this ever happens in life. (My experience is not everyone’s experience! Many people have many different experiences, and this is what fiction and literature is for! First loves can be extremely powerful! Obviously people have different experiences wrt abortion!)
I do mean that the characters were not developed enough to make this trajectory believable to me. The ambitious, beautiful, determined Nadia of the first half of the book turned into a sort of selfish, wavering, lovelorn Nadia in the second half, one who without thinking falls into bed with her ex, her pregnant best friend’s husband, the guy who stood her up at the abortion clinic.
I mean, what? Why? There seemed to me to be no explanation, except a notion that the decisions that we make at 17 are super duper important and we’ll never outgrow them, and also motherhood shapes you in ways you can never escape (even if you don’t actually have the baby)? In the absence of a clearer explanation for Nadia’s emotions and actions–and much deeper character development–it was hard for me to read the second half of the book as more than an anti-abortion warning based on conjecture, not out of someone’s actual, or at least realistic, experience.
[edit: I just read an interview with the author where she expresses a much more nuanced view of abortion and says she was trying to write something beyond the political pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy. I think she makes great points in the interview, but unfortunately, I don’t think this story successfully conveyed those nuances.
All the negative things in Nadia’s life in the second half of the book are a direct result of the abortion: Years of regret and secrets and betrayals of trust. Sleeping with her bff’s husband. Returning to her hometown despite having ample opportunities elsewhere. The dismantling of her home church. Yes, she also achieves her dream of becoming a lawyer, but that is extremely peripheral to the story. So actually, this book ended up feeling very “girl gets abortion, ruins her life,” which feels very pro-life pamphlet.)
Phew! Clearly I brought a lot of feelings to this review. And all that said, this was a solid debut novel. I think it’s probably a 2 star for me, because I can’t quite recommend it, but with some really excellent writing that pushes it juuussssst up to 3 stars. I wish Bennet had made it less YA-feely/first-love-omg and focused more on the deeper, slippery stuff–the insights from mothers of all ages and walks of life; the deep, weird family love and obligations we all have; the spontaneous choices that can shape our destiny in small ways; the role that our communities play in our individual choices, and vice versa.
I hope she does more of that in the future; I’ll be looking for her next book to see if she does.