"The School for Good Mothers," Reviewed by Claire Schroder
Imagine: a mother leaves her 18-month-old home alone for two hours and is reported by the neighbors. Most of us would say her action is negligence and endangerment. How does it make you feel about her and what repercussions should she face? In Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, The School for Good Mothers, the government watches Frida Liu after she is reported through cameras in her home and then sends her to a year-long program to try and regain partial custody of her daughter.
Recently divorced after her husband Gust cheats on her with a younger, hotter woman, stressed and depressed Chinese American single mother Frida has a “very bad day” when she leaves her baby, Harriet, home alone. The novel is set in a dystopian society hauntingly like our current world, but with a dark and complex institution of prison-like schools that instruct parents to be good by practicing with creepy, lifelike robot dolls.
Chan’s writing is engaging, raw, and really gives the reader a sense of eeriness throughout the book, from the hazardous blue liquid that fuels the dolls to the ladies in pink lab coats that expect perfection from the mothers and test them in different “units” of good motherhood, such as “Unit 2: Fundamentals of Food and Medicine” and “Unit 4: Fundamentals of Play.” The School for Good Mothers explores Frida’s relationship with motherhood, her real daughter Harriet versus her doll Emmanuelle, her love life, and life with the other “bad mothers” at the school.
The School for Good Mothers begs the reader to be conflicted–about Frida, about the school--and to ask important questions about how our expectations and stereotypes affect not only children but their parents, especially women of color. Frida is not the most likable character, as it is hard to understand why she left Harriet home alone. However, Frida makes you think about the expectations that are put on women when they become parents; society stops seeing them as women, as people, and only sees them as caregivers. When anyone has a child, regardless of gender, that child should be their priority. But how should we judge what makes a “good mother”? To what extent should a mother’s own mental health be sacrificed? Many of the other mothers in the school are poor, young, single women of color, who are victims of abuse--but the circumstances that led these women into the program are not taken into consideration by the government. They are simply accused of narcissism and of being “bad mothers.” Why is the government seemingly punishing these mothers by shaming them instead of providing mental health and monetary resources to help them?
Although we are unsure of Frida’s exact mental state, she refers throughout the book to her “very bad day,” which seemed like it could have been the result of her suffering from a mental crisis like postpartum depression. While I do not think that a diagnosis or emphasis on mental health would have been necessary, there is a sense that Frida has a deeper, unaddressed issue beyond her shortcomings with Harriet. She is a portrait of a woman who loves her child but isn’t inherently nurturing, who struggles to adapt to the pressures of single motherhood.
While I think Frida’s fixation on men and the sexual aspects of the book were largely unnecessary, and she seems more sexually dependent than liberated, it did demonstrate how she struggled with prioritizing motherhood. Perhaps this conflict is intentional--Chan wants us to question our own judgments of Frida as a woman of color and as a single mother. But which criticisms are justified, and which are products of societal influences on our perceptions of others? Chan also highlights the disparities between how mothers and fathers are perceived by society through the comparison between the School for Good Mothers and the School for Good Fathers. Not only are there far fewer men going through this parental rehabilitation than women, but the fathers are judged less harshly and face fewer restrictions on talking to their children. Mothers are limited to one monthly 10-minute call.
The story is reminiscent of other dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale; both works speak to issues of society’s perception of women, their roles as mothers, and their rights under the government. This connects to our world through current events involving women’s reproductive rights. While the Supreme Court ruled that health care providers can sue Texas over its recent legislation, the state’s near-total abortion ban law stands. This poses a threat to Roe v. Wade and women’s reproductive rights in the U.S. In this political environment, there is a possibility of more women being forced to become mothers even if they cannot afford to or do not even want to have a child.
While The School for Good Mothers does not directly address abortion, it sends a message about how our society criticizes women who are mothers. While the mothers all see the school as a prison, they try to pass their evaluations and conform to the government’s idea of what they should do and who they should be because it is their last resort to get back their children. Chan’s bleak world shows this at an extreme, but how far away are we from more government control dictating women’s lives? Can the brain scans and tests mothers take in the book truly measure a mother’s devotion to her child and her ability to be redeemed?
With a compelling and emotional conclusion, The School for Good Mothers gives readers much to think about, from how we individually see parents to how society rebukes imperfect mothers. Frida, the other mothers, Harriet, and Emmanuelle will not be leaving my mind anytime soon.
The School for Good Mothers
Simon & Schuster
Claire Schroder is a current junior at Villanova University studying political science, economics, and English. She is from Pennsylvania and enjoys coffee, long scenic walks, and is trying to learn how to cook.