The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan – Book review

I had quite a visceral reaction to The School for Good Mothers. It’s the first book in a while that has filled me with anxiety while reading, and then left me in disbelief once I’d finished. A powerful, discombobulating read, to say the least.

Dystopian in theme, it explores a not wildly outside the realms of reality situation, where mothers who are deemed bad by society / a judge are separated from their children and sent to a correction centre.

Opening sentence: ‘We have your daughter.’

A mother’s nightmare

Frida Liu lives in South Philadelphia. She’s separated from her husband Gus, who is now living with Susanna, the woman he cheated on Frida with. Gus and Frida share custody of their 18-month old daughter, Harriet.

Trying to balance a job and looking after Harriet, Frida finds herself physically and mentally pushed to the edge.

Frida is not a bad mother, she is a woman who makes a mistake (leaves Harriet at home for 2 hours on her own) in a high-stress, sleep-deprived state common to parenting young children. However, she pays monumentally for it. Sent to a correction centre for a year, she is separated from her daughter while she ‘learns’ to be a good mother.

The story follows what happens to her there and if she does enough to get Harriet back…

When they have enough material, they say, they’ll use the footage to analyse her feelings.

The expectations of motherhood

I’m always drawn to books about motherhood. Especially ones that give a slightly different spin on the subject, as happens here.

The premise of The School for Good Mothers is very clever, playing on the stupidly high expectations on women to always excel at being the ‘perfect mother’. It shows how while trying to ‘have it all’ women are often pushed to the edge and make mistakes. Yes, some of the characters here cross the line, but some, like Frida are more victims of their situation.

As a mother, it can sometimes feel like you’re always being told what to think and feel and this book takes this concept to a disturbing place.

She always feels like she’s fucking up, but now there’s evidence.

I really felt for Frida while reading this. As well as everything that happens to her, she has to watch as her daughter forms a close bond with her step-mother, which is heartbreaking too. The School for Good Mothers made me uncomfortable, as being sent away from your child really is a nightmare scenario, but its ability to evoke that feeling means it’s a great dystopian read.

This book is interesting, thought-provoking and takes a spin into thriller territory towards the end, to sign off with an unexpected and heart-thumping finale.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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