The School for Good Mothers
March 3, 2022 4:05 PM - Subscribe

Jessamine Chan's debut novel, The School for Good Mothers, is the deeply unsettling story of how Frida Liu's bad parenting day turns into a court-mandated year in an experimental rehabilitation program for bad mothers. But this program is...different. Total surveillance. Public self-criticism. And dolls, sentient AI beings, to detect a mother's "stress, fear, ingratitude, deception, boredom, often she makes eye contact, the quality and authenticity of her emotions." Say it with me: I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good. Again, please. AGAIN.
posted by MonkeyToes (6 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
She had a really tremendous article in Bon Appetit about really struggling postpartum with nursing her child, and her storytelling in that 1-2 pages really grabbed me. This book is definitely on my to-read list.
posted by obfuscation at 12:19 PM on March 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Ps I know words that aren’t “really.”
posted by obfuscation at 5:25 AM on March 5, 2022

I haven't lived in the US in 15 years and I'm not a parent (nor do I have plans to be), so I might have thought this was all a bit heavy-handed as an allegory, but then I read the "Where Is Your Mother?" article linked in the Wired review and if anything I feel like the dystopian elements of this book almost aren't fantastical enough.

It's really interesting to read reactions on Goodreads, where a sizable number of readers have visceral reactions to how unforgivable, unlikable, irresponsible, and self-centered Friday is and I'm like "...I feel like I might behave very similarly if I were a parent?" My own mother did things that would almost certainly be deemed negligent or abandonment, and even though I didn't suffer physical harm as a result, I feel a knee-jerk reaction against the idea that potential psychological distress would have meant that my mother should have been investigated because of "bad parenting" or the lack of capacity to be a "good parent." Was my mother deeply depressed for large portions of my childhood and did it negatively impact her ability to cheerfully enrich my grade school years? Yes, but it's absolutely chilling to think an uncharitable report from a social worker noting my mother's "proclivity to wear house dresses and spend large portions of the day in bed demonstrates a failure to comprehend or fulfill the responsibilities of a parent" could have removed me from my home. I'd hate to see what a Goodreads reviewer would have to say about how unrealistically negligent and detestable my own mother was if she were the protagonist in a book.
posted by wakannai at 4:16 AM on March 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

It's really interesting to read reactions on Goodreads, where a sizable number of readers have visceral reactions to how unforgivable, unlikable, irresponsible, and self-centered Friday is

(a) desperate denial of how their own parenting might look under a sufficiently unforgiving microscope; and/or
(b) violent resentment of any woman who isn't shredding themselves to pieces to be a parent, how dare they not have internalized the big lie
posted by praemunire at 5:23 PM on March 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Having finished this novel, I'm not exactly sure which of my friends I can share it with. Recommending it feels like admitting to having experienced maternal ambivalence, and not always having the right feelings about mothering (at least according to the program instructors). It feels like a book that should be passed hand to hand, in secrecy, among mothers who worry about the power of the state, the power of other mothers' judgment, the power of cruelty in the name of self-improvement. About a dystopia whose outlines have already become everyday. Agreed, praemunire, there are lots of people it's not safe to give this to.

It's spare and tight, nothing wasted, and the cool, detached narration is a perfect choice. Does it matter whether Frida is likeable? There's more to identify with here than the main character's personality. How about the fears of becoming trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare? Of having your personal details exploited and twisted? Of having your one bad moment shoved in your face as the totality of your worth? Of systems and damaging conditions? Does it matter whether the book itself is likeable? Because this is a book I appreciated because of how well it imagined a program that's not here...yet. It showed the cruelty behind the juggernaut of mother-oriented self-improvement, and how the parenting tips in well-meaning magazines can be re-imagined as punitive, oppressive ways of breaking and re-making mothers from the inside out, 1984-style. But I can't like it. "Like" has nothing to do with it.

The only criticism I have of the book, as a book, is Emmanuelle's sudden and momentary decision to use complete sentences, when she says "I will help you, Mommy." Suggesting that her awareness and abilities were dialed up beyond what she showed anyone--but that gets dropped. I get why, but still... Maybe we'll get more on that when the book is adapted for the screen? I appreciated the balance between Frida as everymom, and her explicitly Chinese experience, and the insistence that she is a full, fallible human being, even as the horrible program (in all of its plausible deniability about reform and improvement) grinds her down. I appreciated that she is not particularly heroic, and the way she hung on to the belief that the institution would be fair, and the way her screaming paved the way for me to understand her last decision. It's billed as fiction, but it's much more. Creeping domestic horror? Psychological horror? Speculative domestic horror story? It's going to stick with me for a while, maybe because I am a bad mother.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:19 PM on March 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Man. This was upsetting. I’m glad I read it. I’m glad it’s over. I felt so gross rooting for Frida to be successful in the school's sadistic year long obstacle course. Ugh. Really well written but just… ugh… *shiver*
posted by obfuscation at 5:39 PM on April 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

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