In The School for Good Mothers (Simon & Schuster, Jan.), Jessamine Chan takes on class, race, and the expectations of motherhood in an oppressive society. The response to Chan’s debut dystopian novel was exceptional from the moment the first five pages landed in the inbox of DeFiore & Company agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff in June 2019. The excitement and subsequent trajectory of the book (fierce auctions on both sides of the Atlantic) is rewarding for me because it’s a pleasure to write about one’s own: Chan was an editor at PW.
The School for Good Mothers follows the fortunes, or more accurately misfortunes, of Frida Liu, a single mother whose husband left her for another woman, and who one stressful morning puts her young daughter in the exersaucer and drives to her office with the intention of returning soon. “What could happen in an hour?” she asks herself.
As it turns out, a lot: toddler Harriet is removed by Child Protective Services and given over to Frida’s ex-husband and the girlfriend, while Frida is sentenced to a year at a live-in reform school for mothers. The nightmare of her reeducation begins with the school mantra: “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”
To make the transformation from bad to good, the recalcitrant mothers are given dolls that, Chan writes, “represent the latest advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.” Frida calls her “daughter” Emmanuelle, and Chan writes how “Frida notices all the false parts: the new-car smell, the faint click when Emmanuelle turns her head..., her fingernails that never grow. Frida is a bad mother because her affection is perfunctory. It is now December, and she has yet to complete a successful hug sequence.”
Chan describes Frida as the “messy, complicated Chinese-American heroine I’ve always wanted to see on the page.” Chan herself is the first-generation Chinese American daughter of professors who met in the U.S., and she grew up in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. After graduating from Brown University, she returned to Chicago until 2008, when she went to New York City for the Columbia MFA program, which led her to PW.
She started writing the novel in 2014, taking all her vacation days (from PW) and going alone to a cabin in the country. “I was reading stories about parents who had their children taken away and dealing with my own maternal ambivalence,” she explains. “The two forces lodged in my mind and I had this really good writing day.”
Chan says she was almost in a trance for six hours and came up with a blueprint: 20 pages and a dense outline. She had her voice and characters.
Major life changes followed: Chan left PW that year, moved to Philadelphia, married, and had a child. Still, by spring 2019 she was ready to query agents. Kaffel Simonoff was “a shot in the dark,” and of her agent, Chan says, “I can’t imagine my writing life without Meredith.”
Kaffel Simonoff remembers that Chan’s pages “captured my imagination,” and she wrote back the next day asking to see more and noting that the story and the writing “pierced” her. “I fell phenomenally in love with the first half Jessamine sent and wanted to plant my flag,” she says.
Chan signed with her in July 2019, and after revisions the book was submitted to editors that November, two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Dawn Davis, then publisher of Simon & Schuster’s 37 Ink imprint, bought North American rights in a significant deal just before the holiday in a 12-way auction. A month later, The School for Good Mothers went to PRH UK imprint Hutchinson for a “major six figures,” according to the Bookseller.
In September 2020, after Davis left for Bon Appétit, School moved to S&S editor-in-chief Marysue Rucci, who, because she was “enthralled with the description,” had read the book when it was submitted to Davis. “Even though it was on the 37 Ink list,” Rucci says, she sent a note to Kaffel Simonoff. “SO smart about motherhood and mother-guilt and mother-shame and class and race and oh, it is plotted like a fever dream,” she wrote. In a subsequent note to Kaffel Simonoff after she took on the book, Rucci said, “In one sense, it’s perfect timing—Dawn got to brilliantly edit. I was blown away by the revision.”
Chan tells me she feels grateful to have had both editors.
Describing her protagonist, she says, “Frida is an outsider; her perspective is that of an outsider.” When Frida considers her neighbors, Chan writes, “She doesn’t know any of their names. She’s tried saying hello, but when she does, they ignore her or cross the street.... She’s the only nonwhite resident on her block, the only one who hasn’t lived there for decades, the only renter, the only yuppie, the only one with a baby.”
As the drafts proceeded and Chan became pregnant and had her daughter, she says, Frida “became a lot more loving.” She explains, “I could imagine the work and stress of motherhood, but it was hard to imagine the love until I actually experienced it.” And though the book holds “the idea of perfect American motherhood to the light,” Chan hopes School is for everyone and not just mothers.
With this in mind, Kaffel Simonoff talks about “the universality of the story, its multiplicity of access points.” She says, “I read for my own response as a reader, for literary caliber. I ask, ‘Will it travel? To the U.K.? internationally?’ And the answer is yes.”
In addition to the U.K., rights have sold in Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and Turkey to date. “This novel is so searingly smart,” Kaffel Simonoff says. “I can ramble endlessly about it—its razor-sharp satire, its purity of yearning. Frida is flawed but driven by love. It’s a thriller shot through with heart.”
Rucci concurs: “Jessamine is tackling huge issues with a high-concept barn burner. The reactions from readers who are not mothers, or parents, have been particularly gratifying, because while centered on the state’s oppressive treatment of mothers, the book also explores the draconian societal hurdles affecting women, and women of color in particular.”
Meanwhile, Chan says, her daughter is very much a part of her publishing life. Not only did the four-year-old provide a lot of Harriet’s dialogue but when she heard about this upcoming column, Chan reports, she wanted to know, “Can I be part of the interview?”
This article has been updated for clarity.