Book Review: The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Title: The School for Good Mothers
Author: Jessamine Chan
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: January 4, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic. 

A “modern literary classic”? An “everywoman for the ages”? I’m thinking that whoever wrote the book synopsis did not read the same book I read.

The School for Good Mothers tells the story of Frida, a Chinese-American 39-year-old woman who makes a terrible, life-changing mistake. Sleepless, worn out, frantic, Frida leaves her toddler alone in the house for a few hours — absolutely a horrible action, one that’s hard to fathom and that should definitely have consequences. But the consequences here go beyond a rational response. Frida is cut out of Harriet’s life, and is presented with just one chance to ever see her daughter again: attend a year-long retraining program where she’ll learn to be a good mother. If she passes the program, she may have a chance to be in her daughter’s life. If she fails, her parental rights will be terminated.

While it’s hard to sympathize with Frida initially, it soon becomes clear that the price of her error is cruelly harsh, depriving her of all contact with her daughter and, more shockingly, depriving the daughter of her mother. From the moment of the incident, Frida’s contact with Harriet is strictly controlled and monitored. Surveillance cameras are installed in her home and all her devices are monitored. Her every action and expression is analyzed: Is she remorseful enough? Does she demonstrate empathy? Is she capable of providing care? Does she deserve to be a mother?

Once Frida enters the school, the monitoring becomes even more extreme. Her voice, her heartbeats, her diet — every aspect of her is measured and assessed. At stake is her future with Harriet. Weekly phone calls are granted less frequently than they’re suspended. And the training program is weirdly sinister, involving robot “children” whom the wayward mothers must bond with, care for, shower with love, and train to be good people. It’s creepy, to be sure.

The problem for me is — what was the point of all this? It’s a story about a society similar to our own, but where children’s welfare is controlled and through state-sponsored surveillance and reporting, and where seemingly arbitrary decisions can ruin a family in the blink of an eye. The book is apparently set in a not-too-distant future, but it’s not clear what has changed or in what degree to allow this new approach to child welfare to flourish. And while some of the mothers seem to have been sentenced to the program for infractions that seem better suited to counseling or supportive services, others have clearly been cruel, harmful, or dangerously neglectful. (Sorry, Frida, but I’d place her in the dangerously neglectful category). We’re supposed to feel that the school is extreme (and it is), but some of the parents there do seem to be suited to a more extreme response, so the book’s ability to make the reader feel sympathy isn’t particularly successful across the board.

The story touches on class, race, and gender issues, but it tends to feel performative rather than truly thought-provoking. Frida’s upbringing, by professionally-focused immigrant parents, have shown her one way to parent, but in the world of The School For Good Mothers, there’s no room for deviation from what’s considered to be “good” mothering.

A sad hopelessness pervades much of the book, and while the program at the school is disturbing, it never felt prescient or even slightly believable to me. In a world like our own where social services continue to be underfunded and overstretched, it’s hard to grasp how such a huge societal change could take place in the book’s world, when everything else seems relatively familiar and current.

It seemed to me as though this book was trying very hard to be daring and dramatic, but it’s strangely unmoving in lots of ways. The plot is so over the top that I couldn’t truly buy into it, and therefore never felt like the stakes were real.

The School for Good Mothers is a fast page-turner, but ultimately it left me cold.

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