A captivating debut novel set in Oceanside.
“The Mothers” is a great title for this novel, for though it relates the story of two young women, and the man they share, the legacy of absentee mothers is always between the lines. And, in a brilliant turn, author Britt Bennett deploys the collective voice of church mothers like a Greek chorus, framing the narrative as only great church ladies can.
The mothers of the fictional “Upper Room” congregation, in Oceanside, California, have seen all and know all.
In the early morning, Upper Room was cloaked in quiet, which Nadia knew, because seven years ago, she’d spent a summer of mornings there. In those days, when she was seventeen and wounded and desperate to prove herself worthy of anyone’s attention, she had traveled the silent hallways alone, carrying a mug of coffee from the pastor’s office to the first lady’s.
You might even believe you stepped into Flannery O’Connor’s deep south, except for all the familiar coastal references.
Out the window, she could see the fog rolling into the church parking lot. Enough to make her about sick of it. She was from Macon, Georgia. She knew rain and she knew humidity, but she hated this strange in-between, especially since spring-time in Georgia was when azaleas and peach blossoms and magnolias bloomed and the weather was perfect for barbecues and porch-sitting and driving with the windows down. But here, she could barely see out to the road.
In a community bounded by church and military, adolescent Nadia, the only child of a mother who has recently committed suicide, is running a bit wild until she is anchored by the wounded wild-son of the Pastor. Bright and determined to fulfill her mother’s wishes for a larger life, Nadia finds solace with Luke as she bides her time until college and keeps her secrets.
From the point of view of plot, there is little new in this novel. We’ve read about self-destructive young women before [in this case, rather benign self-destruction] and the trauma of accidental pregnancy, and we’ve read about the type of also wounded and innocent young woman who forms the third angle of the love triangle. It’s not the story that makes this book so good – the story plays out without too many surprises and few revelations – it’s the telling. I was captured by the simplicity of descriptive prose, the realistic and compelling characters, the natural dialogue, and the propulsive narrative. Bennett is a writer to watch.
I will leave you with a few more words of wisdom from the mothers of “The Mothers.”
We were girls once. It’s exciting, loving someone who can never love you back. Freeing, in its own way. No shame in loving an ain’t-shit man, long as you get it out of your system good and early. A tragic woman hooks into an ain’t–shit man, or worse, lets him hook into her. He will drag her until he tires. He will climb atop her shoulders and her body will sag from the weight of loving him … Yes, those are the ones we worry about.
A very fine novel, available in hardcover or your favorite e-reader.