A dazzling debut novel from an exciting new voice, The Mothers is a surprising story about young love, a big secret in a small community—and the things that ultimately haunt us most.
Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett's mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret.
"All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we'd taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season."
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother's recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor's son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it's not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.
In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a "what if" can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Her work is featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.
Read an Excerpt
In the darkness of the club, you could be alone with your grief. Her father had flung himself into Upper Room. He went to both services on Sunday mornings, to Wednesday night Bible study, to Thursday night choir practice although he did not sing, although practices were closed but nobody had the heart to turn him away. Her father propped his sadness on a pew, but she put her sad in places no one could see. The bartender shrugged at her fake ID and mixed her a drink and she sat in dark corners, sipping rum-and-Cokes and watching women with beat bodies spin on stage. Never the skinny, young girls—the club saved them for weekends or nights—just older women thinking about grocery lists and child care, their bodies stretched and pitted from age. Her mother would've been horrified at the thought—her in a strip club, in the light of day—but Nadia stayed, sipping the watery drinks slowly. Her third time in the club, an old black man pulled up a chair beside her. He wore a red plaid shirt under suspenders, gray tufts peeking out from under his Pacific Coast Bait & Tackle cap.
"What you drinkin’?" he asked.
"What're you drinking?" she said.
He laughed. "Naw. This a grown man drink. Not for a little thing like you. I'll get you somethin’ sweet. You like that, honey? You look like you got a sweet tooth."
He smiled and slid a hand onto her thigh. His fingernails curled dark and long against her jeans. Before she could move, a black woman in her forties wearing a glittery magenta bra and thong appeared at the table. Light brown streaked across her stomach like tiger stripes.
"You leave her be, Lester," the woman said. Then to Nadia. "Come on, I'll freshen you up."
"Aw, Cici, I was just talkin’ to her," the old man said.
"Please," Cici said. "That child ain't even as old as your watch."
She led Nadia back to the bar and tossed what was left of her drink down the drain. Then she slipped into a white coat and beckoned for Nadia to follow her outside. Against the slate gray sky, the flat outline of the Hanky Panky seemed even more depressing. Further along the building, two white girls were smoking and they each threw up a hand when Cici and Nadia stepped outside. Cici returned the lazy greeting and lit a cigarette.
"You got a nice face," Cici said. "Those your real eyes? You mixed?"
"No," she said. "I mean, they're my eyes but I'm not mixed."
"Look mixed to me." Cici blew a sideways stream of smoke. "You a runaway? Oh, don't look at me like that. I won't report you. I see you girls come through here all the time, looking to make a little money. Ain't legal but Bernie don't mind. Bernie'll give you a little stage time, see what you can do. Don't expect no warm welcome though. Hard enough fighting those blonde bitches for tips—wait till the girls see your light-bright ass."
"I don't want to dance," Nadia said.
"Well, I don't know what you're looking for but you ain't gonna find it here." Cici leaned in closer. "You know you got see-through eyes? Feels like I can see right through them. Nothin’ but sad on the other side." She dug into her pocket and pulled out a handful of crumpled ones. "This ain't no place for you. Go on down to Fat Charlie's and get you something to eat. Go on."
Nadia hesitated, but Cici dropped the bills into Nadia's palm and curled her fingers into a fist. Maybe she could do this, pretend she was a runaway, or maybe in a way, she was. Her father never asked where she'd been. She returned home at night and found him in his recliner, watching television in a darkened living room. He always looked surprised when she unlocked the front door, like he hadn't even noticed that she'd been gone.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Brit Bennett
A Conversation with Amy Gall
As she tells it, the inspiration for Brit Bennett's captivating debut novel, The Mothers, was her own uncertainty about where she fit in. "I grew up in the church but I always felt a little outside of it, particularly as a young person. I would see all of these kids my age who seemed so devout and solid in their belief. I've always wondered, "How are people so sure about anything?" I had a lot of doubts, but I thought that doubting was the opposite of believing, so I kept it to myself. I'm sure most of the kids I grew up with had their own doubts, but at the time I just thought, everyone else has it together except me. That's where my interest in these young characters growing up in a conservative, gossipy, church community originated."
The Mothers traces the friendship between two young women, Nadia and Aubrey, who have lost their mothers in different ways, Nadia to suicide and Aubrey when her mother chooses her abusive husband over her children. But the novel moves far beyond the relationship of the girls and the stifling religious community they grow up in, to question the very nature of grief. "Loss can feel shameful, which makes it so impossible to talk about, but it also pervades every aspect of your life," Bennett explains. "I think all of the characters are bound by deep loss whether the loss of a mother, or the loss of a child, or the loss of a certain type of future they hoped they'd live. As I've grown up alongside these characters, my interests expanded from simply "teenagers and their problems" to thinking about how their choices as adults, in response to loss, can affect their entire community. Originally I thought that loss would ease over time but now that book is finished, I think, you can be walking around fifty years later and see or smell something that can bring you right back. Loss keeps circling and we can never completely escape it."
Bennett always wanted to be a writer, but until her undergraduate years, she felt alone in her passion. "I'd never met professional writers, so it seemed like an impossible career. And then suddenly I went to undergrad and I had independent studies with Stegner fellows. I was really fortunate to have mentors who took me seriously and worked with me on The Mothers for three years before I even got to grad school.
"One of my mentors was Amy Keller, and I showed a lot of the early drafts to her. She helped me with the psychological aspects of writing a book: how to get rid of my perfectionism and allow myself to make mistakes. The draft that I worked on with her I wrote out of order. I was anxious because I thought I was doing it wrong. She said, 'Who says you have to write a book in chronological order?'
"Another mentor encouraged me to write multiple chapters from Luke's mother's perspective that never made it into the book, but allowed her character to, hopefully, become much more complex. It felt feeling freeing to do that and not worry, Is this going towards my word count? Is this furthering the plot?" The Mothers underwent many significant changes during the seven years Bennett worked on it. "I'm a pretty drastic reviser. I enter the revision process with the belief that anything is changeable, which I think is both a strength and a weakness. Because when you solve certain problems, you often create new ones, so I spent a lot of years putting out fires and sparking new ones that I had to respond to. Recently, I found an old flash drive from 2009 at my parents' house and the thing that surprised me was that, despite all the characters and plots I cut, the first line of the book was exactly the same."
Bennett drew inspiration from a variety of literary works, both classic and contemporary for inspiration, "A few of the standouts for me were Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which thematically has some similarities of impending motherhood in the wake of grieving a lost mother. Americanah was also very technically instructive as far as illustrating how to move through time one of the hardest things for me to figure out in my own writing in a coming-of-age narrative. I remember being impressed with how efficiently Adiche moved from childhood to adulthood for all of those characters."
But, says Bennett, "I always return to Toni Morrison she's one of the first authors who made me want to write a novel, and I'm in awe of what she can do with language. Her imagery is unforgettable, and she writes such strange, often unlikable characters who still have fully realized lives. I read The Bluest Eye in the beginning of high school and a lot of it went over my head. I don't think that's the right gateway novel to Toni Morrison when you're fourteen, but the fact that the book was so beguiling to me actually made me want to read her work more. I read Song of Solomon when I was studying abroad and that was a big influence, too. For the first time in my life, I wasn't in America and I felt I had the space to really consider what it means to be an American. That book really centers on the idea of finding our ancestors."
Though fiction has been her main passion, in 2014, in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, Bennett felt called to write essays. "I was texting back and forth with a friend about how frustrated I was seeing the self-congratulatory social media posts of some of my white friends, while the rest of my black friends were all grieving. There was such a gap in their responses. My friend said, 'Just write about it.' I thought, I don't write nonfiction, I'm writing a novel. But, Jia Tolentino, whom I was in grad school with, had been asking me for essays for Jezebel. I wrote the essay from an emotional space where I was wondering, What's the value of good intentions?" "It was very jarring at first to take a break from a novel I'd been writing mostly on my own for years to work on essays where I would receive immediate feedback from readers within moments of publication. But I try to approach nonfiction writing the same way I approach fiction with empathy, always asking big questions, always looking for interesting connections between ideas. And I was fortunate that Jia gave me the initial platform to do it, because through that, my agent found me, which set the process of publishing The Mothers in motion." Now that The Mothers is finished, Bennett has made peace with her past doubts. "I've come to realize that doubt is part of belief. Believing something wholesale with no room for doubt is like being a computer. There's nothing real about it and it's not how I want to move through the world. I make space for ambiguity. I'm not afraid of it anymore."
October 12, 2016
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hard to put down! An easy lazy weekend read. Loved the characters/personalities, a true story of the complications of life, first loves, and friendship.
Wow! Such a great book, it's amazing that it's a debut. Beautifully told, heart wrenching at times, with passages that I literally reread, they were that good. I can't recommend it enough.
The words in this novel are beautfully woven. Some passages I wanted to highlite and keep to reread. This is a deep book with characters filled with angst. What a subject to have woven through time in their lives. Loved The Mothers talking their minds and perspective in just about every chapter. This book is sad, so my advice is to have a lighthearted book ready to read next.
I absolutely loved reading the perspective of "the mothers", (the church ladies) at the beginning of each chapter. The writing is wonderful, the characters so real--- tough decisions, hard consequences, strong friendships. This goes on my list of most favorite books ever!
Cant wait to see what this author writes next. I loved all the characters. They all had a story and even if they chose the wrong routes, you found yourself understanding why.
I loved this book
★★★½ “The book, I think, is about this central question of how girls grow into women when the female figures who are supposed to usher you into womanhood aren’t there. How girls come of age with that absence. And it’s about how communities are shaped by loss, this thing I keep writing about—how in moments of grief, community can be both a source of comfort and a source of oppression. My main character feels this responsibility to her community yet wants to escape it at the same time. And I was interested in this complexity, as well as the experience of being a young black woman in a community that expects a lot of her, in a world that expects very little.” I found the above insight in this online interview with the author and I think it summarizes The Mothers theme beautifully. Overall, I liked The Mothers and especially enjoyed reading the relationship dynamics written into this story in terms of family, friendship, church body, and a conservative small town. I appreciated Brit Bennett bringing attention to gender double standards, role expectations, and negative self-fulfilling prophecies. This was an interesting read that was both entertaining and thought provoking. If you enjoy reading a variety of themes within the literary fiction and women's fiction genres, check it out! My favorite quote: “Was that all it took, kneeling at the altar and asking for help? Or did you have to invite everyone in on your private sorrow to be saved?”
The story is a bit lackluster and dwadles about.