Jessamine Chan’s stunning and fearless debut novel is part a work refracting the realities of mothers and children caught by the existing child protective system, part a brilliant philosophical exploration of whether a ‘bad mother’ can ever be redeemed, part a biting evisceration of ‘ideal’ upper-middle class ‘American’ parenting
THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS
by Jessamine Chan
37 Ink/Simon & Schuster, January 2022
(via DeFiore and Co)
Frida Liu is an anxiety-prone, 39-year-old, Chinese-American single mom living in a Philadelphia much like ours when she is reported, after a spate of sleepless nights with her 18-month-old, for leaving her daughter alone for a stretch of time she later calls her Very Bad Day. Yet there is no room in Frida’s world for bad days, let alone bad mothers, according to the state’s increasingly empowered Child Protective Services which seamlessly takes Harriet and sets about surveilling Frida’s home. After a series of almost comically bad supervised visits, a judge deems Frida temporarily unfit. Her only hope for continuing to share custody of Harriet with her ex is to pass exams meted out by a prized new government program. This twelve-month, live-in program will retrain Frida (and other bad mothers from across the country) in how best to parent. But don’t worry, the school will assure its mothers. The state has created helpers to teach the mothers in situ. Eerily lifelike, young helpers, programmed to measure and record the depths of the repentant women’s devotion. What follows is a year of crushing indignity meets head-spinning surreality as Frida attempts to atone. A year of swinging so radically from stubborn hope to deadened ache and back again, amidst the school’s constant hammering of indoctrination, that Frida is unsure she will survive. Certain other mothers do not survive. Yet Frida is determined to be reunited with Harriet again, to remind her daughter of the worth of her flawed love. Whether the state deems her a suitable mother, or not.
Jessamine Chan’s debut gazes, with an ear for beauty and even occasional macabre humor, into an abyss some may find too dark to even fathom, yet which others face regularly, one way or another. Literary but with thriller-like stakes, it is a book, a la its protagonist, that refuses to be merely one thing as it pulls the reader along. It is no surprise that it was inspired by books, among others, including Never Let Me Go and 1984.
Jessamine Chan holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she was awarded a teaching fellowship. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House and Epoch. In 2017, she received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation to fund the completion of this novel. Her work has also received support from Bread Loaf, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Anderson Center, VCCA, and Ragdale. Prior to moving to Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband and daughter, she worked as a nonfiction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.