I finished this book several days ago, but I feel like I might need even more time to fully digest it. I think this review is going to be difficult to write, just because I’m still sorting through all of the feelings that the book brought up.
Frida Liu is a struggling single mother, living in the near future in Philadelphia. She gave up her career to have her baby, Harriet. When her husband, Gust, leaves her shortly after Harriet’s birth, Frida is forced to take a new job. Frida is juggling work with parenting and co-parenting, and it’s not going well. Frida has one Very Bad Day, and leaves toddler Harriet home alone for several hours. A neighbor calls the police, and Frida is thrown into the world of Child Protective Services, ultimately sentenced to participate in a year-long residential pilot program designed to teach bad parents to be better. If she passes, she will be reunited with Harriet. If she fails, her parental rights will be permanently terminated by the state.
The bulk of the novel takes place at the residential program, as parents are separated into cohorts, first by gender of parent, then gender and age of child. While all of this is stressful enough, the horror creeps in when the program’s instructors introduce a new piece of equipment: AI-enabled android “dolls” of the same age and race(!) of the parents’ own children. The parents must successfully bond with their “dolls” and demonstrate the parenting techniques they are learning.
What is super difficult to convey about this book is the sense of creeping dread, as well as the oppressive feeling of the mothers’ anxiety. There is exploration of the way that race and class plays into expectations about child rearing, and how mothers and fathers are perceived very differently in their parenting roles. There is exploration of the ways that the state can use data and algorithms in a surface attempt to be fair and impartial, while really using them as a means of control. But mostly, we feel the despair of mothers who genuinely love their children, but who are being very much set up to fail by the system in which they are caught.
I think this would be a really excellent book to discuss in a group, especially if your group has diversity of race, class, or age. We learn about the offences that each parent has committed, and the author very much does not excuse or condone; we as readers are left to make up our own minds about whether the mothers “deserve” to be at the school, and whether they deserve to get their children back. Questions of differing parenting philosophies are raised, and the author does not answer them. What is clear, however, is that these mothers are being held to impossible standards.
“By staying calm, they’re showing their child that a mother can handle anything. A mother is always patient. A mother is always kind. A mother is always giving. A mother never falls apart. A mother is the buffer between her child and the cruel world.”