“Mother” is a radioactive word for 17-year-old Nadia Turner, the heroine of Brit Bennett’s sad, tender debut. Six months after losing hers to suicide she’s still numb, blotting out the pain with beer and boys and counting the days until she can leave her sleepy Southern California beach town and remote Marine Corps father for a college scholarship in Michigan. But when a summer fling with Luke Sheppard, the wayward son of her pastor at Upper Room Chapel, brings a surprise pregnancy, Nadia knows neither of them is prepared to keep the baby. She also knows that from the outside, “there was nothing special about a girl like this—not her good grades, not her prettiness. She was just another black girl who’d found herself in trouble and was finding her way out of it.”
How Nadia’s choices will affect her future and Luke’s, and the unlikely friendship she forms with a quiet, deeply religious classmate named Aubrey, form the crux of the book. (Which incidentally contains many kinds of mothers, though the ones of the title are more like surrogates—the elderly ladies of Upper Room, who serve as a sort of wise, cautionary Greek chorus hovering over the narrative.)
Almost every coming-of-age story tends to follow the same arc: You fall down, you get up, you learn how to be a person in the world. If there’s freshness to be found (or not), it’s in the details, and Bennett nails nearly all of them. In a recent interview, she spoke about how important it was to her to “just depict ordinary black life. I think that there’s something really powerful and humanizing,” she said, “of not foregrounding white racism as the number-one problem of being black.” As much as The Mothers is steeped in black culture, it’s also pointedly, poignantly universal in its depiction of young love and friendship and hard choices. Maybe that qualifies as revolutionary, or maybe it’s just a really good novel, one that makes all the mess and magic of being young feel both new and familiar in the best kind of way.
“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around in our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness….”