cover image The School for Good Mothers

The School for Good Mothers

Jessamine Chan. Simon & Schuster, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-982156-12-1

Chan’s enthralling speculative debut opens with a woman having “one very bad day” in Philadelphia. Frida Liu, Chinese American and recently divorced, has left her daughter, 18-month-old Harriet, alone at home in an ExerSaucer for two hours so she can work, a decision that results in Harriet’s removal to a crisis center. Frida is then sentenced by a family court judge to one year in a live-in rehab program for bad moms that will use constant instruction, training, and supervision to determine if she can make “sufficient progress” as a mother or if her parental rights should be terminated. Guided by the mantra “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good,” Frida and the other 200 moms must prove their worth by raising surrogate children in order to earn their own children back. Chan raises the stakes as she explores Frida’s relationships with the other mothers, Harriet and Emmanuelle (her surrogate daughter), her ex-husband’s new family, and her romantic interests. Chan (a former PW reviews editor) also tightens the screws of the program itself as the leaders capriciously deny privileges, such as 10-minute Sunday phone calls home, and broaden the definitions for what’s considered an offense. Woven seamlessly throughout are societal assumptions and stereotypes about mothers, especially mothers of color, and their consequences. Chan’s imaginative flourishes render the mothers’ vulnerability to social pressures and governmental whims nightmarish and palpable. It’s a powerful story, made more so by its empathetic and complicated heroine. Agent: Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, DeFiore and Company. (Jan.)