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A Coming-Of Age Melodrama Is Steeped In Social Politics In 'The Mothers'


This is FRESH AIR. One of October's most talked about books is a debut novel about a trio of young African-Americans in Southern California who are dealing with their community's expectations and their own mistakes and ambitions. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Brit Bennett first generated major buzz with a provocative 2014 essay she wrote in the wake of the Ferguson uprising entitled "I Don't Know What To Do With Good White People." In that essay, written for the online magazine Jezebel, Bennett explored her own contradictory emotions as a young black woman in the company of white liberal friends who seemed to want approval from her for not being racists. Bennett spoke powerfully to those good white people in her essay. She said, (reading) I feel surrounded by black death. What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.

Now Bennett, at age 26, is generating still more buzz with her debut novel called "The Mothers." It's a coming-of-age story about three friends, all African-American, who first become aware of each other in high school and through the church in their community in Southern California. Nadia is the smart, beautiful girl who's going places. She's got a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Aubrey is the shy, nice girl who wears a purity ring and spends all her free time volunteering at church.

The two girls are slowly drawn to each other by the fact that they're both motherless. Nadia's mother recently committed suicide, and Aubrey's long ago abandoned her. The trio is rounded out by Luke, a former football star sidelined by injury who's now working as a waiter at a restaurant on the beach. He's also the pastor's son, and you know what they say about pastors' kids.

That last remark comes courtesy of a Greek chorus of church ladies who chime in throughout the novel, gossiping about the other characters and nudging the plot along through chatty summaries. Nadia and Luke in particular give the church ladies plenty to talk about. In the opening section of the novel they hook up, and Nadia becomes pregnant and has an abortion, a decision that has dire consequences for the three friends far into their adult lives. Truth to tell, as a work of the imagination, "The Mothers" isn't all it's hyped up to be. The plot and premise here feel canned. Indeed, much of the novel reads like a mash-up of Lifetime movie melodrama with Hallmark Channel social politics. To a certain extent though, "The Mothers" is redeemed by the presence of those same sharp perceptions that made Bennett's essay such a must read sensation.

Because Nadia venture's the farthest away from her community, she's the character who most frequently experiences these what just happened encounters with white people. For instance, after Luke fails to pick her up after the abortion, Nadia is given a ride home by a white volunteer at the clinic. Here's Bennett's description of that awkward ride. (Reading) The volunteer, blond, 20-ish, earnest, chatted nervously the whole drive. She was a junior at Cal State San Marcos, she said, volunteering at the clinic as part of her feminist studies major. She looked like the type of girl who could go to college, major in something like feminist studies and still expect to be taken seriously. She asked if Nadia planned to go to college and seemed surprised by her response. Oh, Michigan's a good school, she said, as if Nadia didn't already know this.

There are lots of quick mini-epiphanies like that one scattered throughout "The Mothers," moments where readers of color may nod their heads in recognition and we white readers, who might like to think of ourselves as good white people, may feel impelled to re-examine the assumptions behind similar innocent remarks we've made. But a work of fiction demands more than intermittently perceptive moments to come to life. Unfortunately, The Mothers lacks the narrative and linguistic energy to sustain a reader's belief in the world that Bennett has contrived.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be John Hudak, the author of "Marijuana: A Short History." Two dozen states have legalized medical marijuana for permit recreational use, but pot remains illegal under federal law. We'll hear how public policy on marijuana has evolved and some of the challenges ahead as it becomes an increasingly big business in an age of conflicting laws and regulations. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheean, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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