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.

Take A Peek Book Review: The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Title: The Cactus
Author: Sarah Haywood
Publisher: Park Row
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


In this charming and poignant debut, one woman’s unconventional journey to finding love means learning to embrace the unexpected.

For Susan Green, messy emotions don’t fit into the equation of her perfectly ordered life. She has a flat that is ideal for one, a job that suits her passion for logic, and an “interpersonal arrangement” that provides cultural and other, more intimate, benefits. But suddenly confronted with the loss of her mother and the news that she is about to become a mother herself, Susan’s greatest fear is realized. She is losing control.

Enter Rob, the dubious but well-meaning friend of her indolent brother. As Susan’s due date draws near and her dismantled world falls further into a tailspin, Susan finds an unlikely ally in Rob. She might have a chance at finding real love and learning to love herself, if only she can figure out how to let go.


My Thoughts:

I borrowed the audiobook of The Cactus from my library on a whim, based on its being available and also being a Reese’s Book Club pick (because I do seem to like most of their selections). This was an enjoyable, diverting story, although I’m not sure that I loved it. Susan is set in her ways, negating emotion at every turn, always aiming for efficiency and neatness. When her life turns upside down, she’s forced to start letting others in, and learns some hard truths about her own childhood. 

The cactus metaphor is a little heavy-handed, in my humble opinion. We get it: Susan is prickly, defensive, making sure others don’t get too close… but with proper attention and nurturing, she’s still capable of flowering. Geez.

I mostly enjoyed Susan’s brand of no-nonsense bossiness and solitude, although some of her behaviors are a bit extreme. The love story didn’t grab me — I didn’t feel convinced by the relationship and its development. I was much more interested in Susan’s family history and its dysfunctions, and how her childhood experiences slowly turned her into the woman she’d become. 

The Cactus is a fairly light read, and I enjoyed it overall, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my priority recommendations.

Shelf Control #164: Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!


A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.


Title: Lilli de Jong
Author: Janet Benton
Published: 2017
Length: 352 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.

Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.

Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family’s home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. “So little is permissible for a woman,” writes Lilli, “yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”

How and when I got it:


Why I want to read it:

Something about the description on the back cover absolutely drew me in. I do enjoy historical fiction, and I’m always up for reading about women’s struggles to control their own lives in difficult times. This novel sounds powerful and moving, and I’m excited to rediscover it on my shelves!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!














Don’t bother me. I’m reading.

Are reading and being part of a social unit mutually exclusive?

Why is it that I feel the need to sneak in order to satisfy my reading desires?

I’ve often said that if I didn’t have a husband and kids, I would be most naturally inclined toward the life of a hermit. I can see it now — holed up for hours in my house, just me, a pair of fuzzy slippers, a steaming mug of coffee, and piles and piles of books. I’d come up for air occasionally — hit the kitchen, grab a snack, take a bathroom break — then dive back into the pages of whatever novel happens to be my obsession at the moment. If it’s a sunny day, maybe I’d even take my mug, slippers, and book out on the back porch for a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air. Doesn’t sound half bad, if you ask me.

And yet… I’m a mom, I’m part of a family, and I love all my various and sundry people like crazy. But, for realz, there just aren’t enough hours in a day for work, kid time, homework time, play time, couple time, house time — the list is endless. So where does that leave me and my piles of books?

Consider this scenario from a recent vacation: My husband, son, and I were on a lovely camping trip, and decided to spend the day by the nearby lake. Hubby and kid wanted to rent a motorboat; I most emphatically do not do boats. So off they went, and I spent a very enjoyable hour on our picnic blanket, novel in hand, sun on my face, blissfully reading and relaxing. When they returned, my son’s first comment to me was, “Mom! You’re on vacation! Everyone else here is having fun, and you’re just sitting there reading a book!” It pained me to have to explain to my own flesh and blood that, hey, this is my idea of fun!

And so, I sneak. When I wake up on a weekend morning, I grab my book and read a quick chapter before getting out of bed and joining the family. When my son decides to work on his latest video game, off I head with my book. When he gets in the shower at night, out the book comes again. It’s not until we’ve finished up the bedtime rituals and the kid is safely ensconced in slumber for the night that I can sit down publicly in my own house, put up my feet, and enter my reading zone. No sneaking required.

I wish I could put up a Do Not Disturb sign every now and then, and declare myself temporarily off-limits. When the lights are flashing, do not approach mom! My pleas for “five more minutes”, “let me finish my chapter”, or “wait! I’m at a good part!” would be a thing of the past.

I’m a good mother, try to be a good spouse, but honestly, would a little more time to read hurt anybody? Never mind, don’t answer that.