- 319 pages
- Published in 2022
- Speculative Fiction
- Chinese American MC
The School For Good Mothers starts with Frida Liu’s very bad day. Frida has been struggling–her daughter is barely a toddler and her husband (now ex) has left her for a younger woman. Co-parenting hasn’t been easy, as her daughter, Harriet, has quickly attached to her ex’s new girlfriend, and Frida is left to live up to everyone’s expectations of her, while also managing a job and first-time parenting. When Harriet comes down with an ear infection and both Frida and her daughter have several sleepless nights in a row, Frida makes the decision to go get herself a coffee–without her daughter. Leaving her daughter home alone, Frida’s coffee run turns from 15 minutes to an hour, to two, and suddenly she’s at the local police station being questioned by Child Protective Services.
While Frida’s sanity seems to hinge entirely on her daughter, the state is concerned–she can’t possibly be a good mother after abandoning her toddler daughter. So, the state temporarily strips Frida of her parental rights and ships her off to a government run school for bad mothers. Frida will stay at the school for good mothers for 12 months–and in exchange, she might have the chance of re-gaining her parental rights. But first, she’ll need to learn to be good.
If I had to describe Jessamine Chan’s The School For Good Mothers in just one word, it would be: haunting.
It’s very rare that authors choose to introduce their narrator as unreliable from the very first page. Yet, Chan does just this–and somehow, I don’t hate Frida–This characterization instead makes me feel closer to her. It’s clear Frida’s made a terrible mistake. And, it some ways, it is truly inexcusable. Yet, she’s also gone through some very difficult mental health struggles, she’s entirely alone, and her husband has betrayed her. Honestly, it’s no wonder she went off the deep end.
Yet, some mothers take these things in stride and put their child first. While Frida tries to do this, it doesn’t exactly work in her favor and she ends up having (what she calls) “a very bad parenting day.” Chan uses Frida’s character–and her choices–to illustrate how difficult single parenting is and the many struggles that women face daily. Women are judged every single day on their parenting abilities, often by complete strangers, and The School For Good Mothers takes this concept and elevates it.
The sheer unbelievability of the government’s role in this situation—it just completely irked me. Not only did they put cameras all through Frida’s house, AND ask her to give up her life for a year (which was the bare minimum, let’s be real), they also took away any shred of dignity she had. It made me unbelievably angry to see her treated as less than a common criminal, and the state made it nearly impossible for Frida and Harriet to ever see each other again, let alone for Frida to re-gain her parental rights.
That being said, I loved the comradery of the other mothers suffering at the school. While Chan illustrates a school that is intentionally segregated by its attendees, each mother had something in common with the mother sitting next to her, regardless of race. All of the mothers struggled with the same emotions, even though they were there for different reasons. I saw multiple Goodreads reviews that mentioned the race aspect of this story as “too much,” but I feel like it was very necessary to show that a mother is a mother, no matter what color, shape, or size they are. I enjoyed that the mothers find solace in each other, as this book needed some semblance of warmth with how cold and contrite it was.
Though, one thing I didn’t love about this book? the ending–and probably not for the reasons you might think. While the judge’s overall ruling was absolutely jarring, I felt like Frida’s final decision wasn’t “it.” I admired Chan’s ability to create a final moment for Frida where could make a decision of her own. In a book where Frida is completely rendered powerless, this last moment of power was SO important. Yet, I felt like I wanted the choice she made to go even darker than Chan did. Although, I do understand why the author chose this route for Frida.
I’ve read a lot of thrillers over the years. I’ve read ghost stories, horror novels, tales of the supernatural–yet I don’t think any books comes as close to “haunting” as The School For Good Mothers does. This book will make you feel something, at the very least. And, it might just become a new favorite (and I should probably add here that this is Chan’s debut novel, so we certainly should all hope for more amazing stories from her).
While I really did love this book (and it was not at all what I was expecting), I decided to rate it 4.5 stars instead of the full 5 stars because I wanted the ending to be even darker. This book had such a deep cold tone to it, that I either needed it to have a happy ending, or an extremely deep dark one, and Frida’s last choice wasn’t enough for me (I’ll leave it at that for those of you who haven’t read this book yet).
Overall, I think this book was one of the scariest I’ve read this year (maybe ever) and it preys on the nightmares that we already have, which makes it all the more terrifying. If you have ANY nightmares about CPS, child custody, or terrible ex’s, I’d say skip this one. If you’re like me, and you enjoy books that make you literally want to bury yourself because of all the feelings, full speed ahead.
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