March 26, 2017

Reading : The Mothers by Brit Bennett

There are some books that I'd describe as delicious, because the language is so luxurious that absorbing the words is a viscerally absorbing experience.  This is what I love most about books, and why non-fiction never gets quite to the level of what fiction can do for me.  I appreciate books that directly explore ideas and people, but what I love most is using the medium of language to emote and elicit.  And this is partly why I think it's hard for me to recommend a book or to describe one when people ask me it's "about."  Most of the time, why I enjoy a book has very little to do with plot.

Unlike eating delicious food, digesting a delicious book isn't necessarily a happy experience. Most often, when language is really powerful, it's about loss: "Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip."

That line is from The Mothers by Brit Bennett, a book whose language lingers for me months after I finished reading it.

To answer the "what is it about?" question: Nadia is a 17 year old whose mother has committed suicide and whose father is unable to offer her guidance in the wake of his own grief.  She develops a relationship with Luke, the son of her town's pastor, and becomes pregnant.  There's little discussion between the couple about the next step--Nadia has an abortion because it seems like the obvious decision.  With grace and understanding, the book never places judgment on whether this is true or not, but it makes clear that a conversation should be had.  As they get older, Nadia and Luke explore this silence between them over and over.  What if they had expressed themselves differently?  Asked different questions? Given different answers?

With this thread of the story, so much is said about the communication and silence between people.

There's a parallel story about Aubrey, Nadia's best friend, who lies in a bit in the shadows of Nadia's force of character.  Her trauma is more muted than Nadia's, and people might feel Aubrey is less fleshed out in general as a character.  But I think this is a deliberate portrait of how often women suffer quietly, without external validation, believing that "an inside hurt was supposed to stay inside.  How strange it must be to hurt in an outside way you couldn't hide."  And this: "Her father propped his sadness on a pew, but she put her sad in places no one could see."

As the title implies, the book is about women and they way they mother--not just their own children, but everyone around them.  Women are called upon to nurture and fix, and we put this endeavor on a pedestal: "Sometimes the glory was in rebuilding the broken thing, not the result but the process of trying."

It made me think about how much value I place in caretaking, in persisting through things that are difficult.  I don't think I've consciously viewed it in terms of my role as a woman.  But we foster in ourselves the natural tendencies given to us, and it can't be denied that women possess to some degree a natural capacity to nurture.  This drives much of our roles as care providers, partners, mothers, sisters, friends.

But is it always glorious?

One of the things I love about this book is that it pushes us to examine how much of its language is true.  A line about :"rebuilding the broken thing" seems so beautiful, you trust it.  But the stories of Nadia and Aubrey are couched in this larger collective voice of all the town's women.  They say things like: "We tried to love the world. We cleaned after this world, scrubbed its hospital floors and ironed its shirts, sweated in its kitchens and spooned school lunches its kitchens, cared for its sick and nursed its babies.  But the world didn't want us...Now we're afraid of this world...We've seen what this world has to offer. We're scared of what it wants."

With incredibly empathetic nuance, Bennett shows how our womanhood--our capacity to care--pushes us to the full spectrum of our identities, and also threatens those identities.  These are my favorite lines:

"Now they were slow and deliberate, the way hurt people loved, stretching carefully just to see how far damaged muscles could go."  
Here, you can feel Nadia's person move beyond her usual space.  There's pain, and recovery.

"Then Luke kissed her hand and held it between his, and for the rest of the drive, she imagined her life caught between his teeth, her trusting him not to bite."
And here, you can feel how she's placed herself into someone else's space--there's freedom, and confinement.

Somehow Bennett is able to be honest without being abrasive, gently delayering the skin of what women feel and suffer, letting what's underneath stew so that we absorb the flavors over time.  A really achingly delicious book.


  1. "gently delayering the skin of what women feel and suffer, letting what's underneath stew so that we absorb the flavors over time" - this is beautiful, Kim. You write with much of the beauty that you describe here.

    1. Haha thanks Christine, but I can guarantee the book is much better :)


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