I've complained many times on this blog about debut novels by attractive young authors that I felt were pushed into publication far too soon. So it's a relief to be able to point to this book and say, "Hey! Great debut!"
The Mothers is the story of Nadia Turner, whose mother commits suicide when Nadia is just a teenager in high school. In the ensuing months, as Nadia struggles to come to terms with her mother's death, she falls into a "friends with benefits" relationship with Luke Sheppard, the son of her church's pastor. However, the benefits result in an unwanted pregnancy. Nadia is one of the few people she knows in her small-town California community who has what it takes to get a college scholarship. Aware that keeping the pregnancy would mean losing that opportunity to move forward, she terminates the pregnancy, with Luke's financial help. But, not surprisingly, it's a decision that reverberates in both Nadia's and Luke's lives for years to come.
Bennett uses an interesting narrative structure here. The story is couched in a "we" voice of the mothers of the title--a group of older, gossipy women in the church that plays a central role in Nadia's and Luke's lives. The role is similar to a Greek chorus, except that these are real characters, watching, assuming, and gossiping. It's a sophisticated approach that really worked for me. I've seen some people complaining online that they felt it distracted from the story, but given how important the church and its members are to this group, I felt it was very successful, not unlike the role of Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights. And it's not just a matter of them commenting on what's happening; to some degree, they have an impact on the outcome. Part of me wished the entire book had been told from their point of view. But that would have caused the loss of some closer insights to Nadia and Luke, so maybe not? It's a great problem to have, to wonder which of two excellent approaches would have worked better.
The other thing I think is so well done in this book is its take on abortion. It's clear that Nadia's life would be drastically different if she didn't get an abortion. But it's also clear that it's something that haunts her. The book doesn't take a pro- or anti-choice stand, it simply presents one woman's situation and how it affects her going forward.
Finally, much of the writing is beautiful. There are a few spots that are a bit strained, but overall, this is a very accomplished book. And, like much of my recent reading, grief is a theme: "Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip."
I will definitely read her next book.