by Brit Bennett, 2016
Nadia Turner is just seventeen when she becomes pregnant with 21-year-old Luke Turner’s child. As the son of the town pastor, Luke has kept their relationship a secret and it’s only when the pregnancy arises that he must confess his sins to his parents. Nadia is on the verge of leaving Oceanside, CA, where she lives with her father, the two of them alone after her mother’s suicide. Determined not to let anything keep her from fulfilling her dreams, Nadia takes the only route she feels is available to her and terminates the pregnancy. These are not spoilers, as these events occur in the very opening pages of the book, but they are the impetus of Bennett’s astute exploration of motherhood in the pages that follow.
Perhaps the most talked about aspect of this book is the Greek-style chorus of “The Mothers” who begin each chapter in third-person plural perspective, offering their wit and wisdom on the goings on of the town. Their presence is an effective one and it’s easy to conjure up the image of these women, passing on gossip and offering up personal anecdotes and “Mmm-hmm”-ing in response. Some of their observations may not be entirely accurate, but they’re often on point and they’re always filled with love.
We were girls once. As hard as that is to believe.
Oh, you can’t see it now – our bodies have stretched and sagged, faces and necks drooping. That’s what happens when you get old. Every part of you drops, as if the body is moving closer to where it’s from and where it’ll return. But we were girls once, which is to say, we have all loved an ain’t-shit man.
While the main plot of the book is not the most original one, I’m impressed by how Bennett has used this well-worn conflict to discuss social norms. Feeling alienated by her secret, Nadia becomes friends with Aubrey Evans, the strange new girl who seemingly spends all her time at Upper Room church and appears to be filled with a new found evangelism that belies the hurt that infects the core of her being. Through her story we learn that both girls suffer from feeling abandoned by their mothers – Nadia, whose mother chose to leave, and Aubrey, whose mother failed to see and protect her. Bennett awards no winners in this contest of suffering, allowing us to see, instead, how these mothers helped shape the women their daughters would become.
Likewise, the topic of abortion is handled deftly, with Bennett showing that it is not a single action that is done and forgotten, but a choice that will continue to follow Nadia and Luke throughout their lives. Neither forget that they once created a child, and in not forcing her characters to dismiss their decision we’re privy to an entire range of emotions that accompanies a choice that felt inevitable to them. Bennett does not attempt to say that their lives would have been better had Nadia had the child, nor does she say that their lives are better without it. It’s a perpetual question that I’m sure many women face and, like so many occurrences in life, there is no one right answer.
I would be remiss not to mention Bennett’s handling of race throughout the story. We are so used to seeing black stories devoted to the topic of struggle and oppression, but here Bennett shows how race is a topic that naturally permeates people’s lives. With a full cast of black characters, Bennett does not make this about being black, but about people who happen to be black. She writes of Luke: “He wasn’t a bad kid but he was reckless. Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless, [his mother] had tried to tell him. Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.” To those who crow about everything being made to be about race, Bennett shows that for many of us, whether the issue is big or small, race is simply the context through which we are forced to see our lives.
Nadia does her best to leave Oceanside, but after her father has an accident, she’s pulled back and forced to contemplate the life she tried so hard to escape. Nadia can’t help but think about the reasons behind her mother’s suicide – was she reason her mother no longer wanted to live? Did her birth keep her mother from becoming the person she thought she would be? Would her mother still be alive if Nadia were not? “This would be her life, accomplishing the things her mother had never done. She never celebrated this… How could she be proud of lapping her mother, when she had been the one to slow her down in the first place?” These are the questions of someone coming to grips of what motherhood means, both as a daughter and as an “unpregnant” woman, and I think they are questions many of us contemplate at one time or another – how would we be different if we had kids or didn’t have kids or made other choices in our lives? That womanhood is inextricably tied to motherhood is nothing new, but Bennett breathes much life into her examination of this perpetually mined topic.