With both of us now fully retired, my wife and I have spent more of our free time than ever burying our noses in books. In fact, Lori’s plowed through more novels and non-fiction works than I have in the past year or so.
We each gravitate to favorite authors and different topics, so it’s nice when we can introduce each other to a new voice.
That was the case recently when I followed her recommendation that I check out one of two books by Brit Bennett, a young African American writer who’s written two New York Times bestsellers: “The Mothers” (2016) and “The Vanishing Half” (2020).
I chose “The Mothers” — partly because I wanted to begin with the debut novel but also because I was drawn to parts of Bennett’s biography.
She graduated from Stanford and earned a MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where I spent a year on sabbatical as a young reporter. Also, she was born and raised in Oceanside, California, a place I’ve come to know a little bit as it’s where my older sister and her husband live just north of San Diego. Oceanside has long been known as a military town, given its proximity to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, but in recent years has become more of a multiethnic tourist draw, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Sure enough, both Oceanside and Ann Arbor figure into the story of “The Mothers.” And Bennett’s voice is a refreshing one that leaves me wanting to read her second book and looking forward to her appearance in Portland early next year. She’s scheduled to speak in February as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures series and I’ve got a ticket. (Yay!)
In “The Mothers,” Bennett writes compellingly about two teenagers, Nadia and Aubrey, who come from opposite backgrounds and establish an unlikely friendship.
Nadia Turner is 17, brainy, beautiful and ambitious but also grieving from her mother’s recent suicide. She lives with her father, a stoic ex-Marine who donates his time and his truck to various community causes, but is quiet and emotionally unreachable. Nadia longs to get away from Oceanside, the only place she’s ever lived, and start school in the fall at the University of Michigan with visions of a career, international travel and new friends,
Aubrey Evans, her friend, is a nondescript outsider. She’s lived everywhere, following her mother as she moved with a succession of boyfriends from state to state, only to have things end the same way, with a breakup. Aubrey shows up one day at the Upper Room Chapel, an African American church, with nothing but a small handbag, not even a Bible. When the pastor asks who needs prayer, she rises from her seat and walks to the altar, crying in front of the congregation.
The girls become acquaintances, then friends, then constant companions and confidantes — except for one big secret.
Feeling vulnerable after her mother’s death, Nadia takes up with Luke, the local pastor’s son. She becomes pregnant and ends up having an abortion. This short-lived romance, if you want to call it that, happens before she becomes friends with Aubrey, and she reveals nothing about it to her.
Nadia goes off to college while Aubrey remains in Oceanside; she embraces Christianity, develops a relationship with Luke (yep, Nadia’s ex) and eventually marries him; she wants a child, but has trouble conceiving.
As the narrative plays out, Bennett raises one fraught subject after another. How do these young women deal with pregnancy and abortion, with romance and marriage, with trust and deceit? How do they pursue personal growth and establish their own version of independence? How do they handle family relationships, their own fraying friendship, and the judgments of their church community?
The latter, you see, refers to the book’s title. The Upper Room church is anchored by a group of older mothers — church ladies, if you will — who know all about the goings-on in town and aren’t shy about commenting on everyone else’s business. They certainly do so in the case of Nadia, extending their moral judgments to include her dead mother and taciturn father. Latrice Sheppard, the pastor’s wife (and, yes, Luke’s mother), is a leader in this regard.
The novel examines the breakdown in trust between Nadia and Aubrey, their efforts to repair the breach, and the impacts of choices they made as teens and as young adults.
Many aspects of the novel are autobiographical. In fact, Bennett was the same age as the protagonist, Nadia, when she began writing it, as she explains in this interview with The New York Times.
Bennett was barely 26 when “The Mothers” came out and even now is just 31. She writes beautifully, with great clarity and emotional intelligence. She not only captures the young women’s personalities and perspectives, conveyed through introspection and authentic dialogue, but also the geneational point of view of the older ladies, particularly the pastor’s wife. They too have faced racism in their lives, along with limited occupational and education opportunities, and narrow societal expectations that they would marry and become mothers. So why wouldn’t they, in bonding over the Bible, pass judgment on these two young Black women and even question their friendship.
“We tried to love the world,” one of those mothers recalls. “We cleaned after this world, scrubbed its hospital floors and ironed its shirts, sweated in its kitchens and spooned school lunches, cared for its sick and nursed its babies. But the world didn’t want us, so we left and gave our love to Upper Room. Now we’re afraid of this world. A boy snatched Hattie’s purse one night and now none of us go out after dark. We hardly go anywhere at all besides Upper Room. We’ve seen what this world has to offer. We’re scared of what it wants.”
“The Mothers” is an excellent book. Brit Bennett’s is an important new voice. I expect I will be reading more of her work for years to come.