All too realistic?
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan is a dystopian fiction novel surrounding the themes of surveillance, free will, perfection, and what it takes to be a “good” mother.
Many people have been comparing this book to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and to say this is not worth the comparison is an understatement. Yes, they are both dystopian novels, and they involve the themes of surveillance; crucial to both plot points. However, it would do both of the novels a disservice by comparing them simply because of their shared genre.
Possibly, this is because science fiction or dystopian books do not become as mainstream as other genres; that is unless they happen to be geared toward young adults. The era of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and other similar series created a cultural phenomenon targeting young adults with these futuristic societies. Don’t get me wrong, The Handmaid’s Tale is not geared towards young adults (and can have triggering content for people of all ages) but aside from this, popular dystopian media is fairly rare; which is why they often get compared to each other. These are two very different worlds.
Taking The School for Good Mothers as it is, and not comparing it to other books or genres, there were many important aspects of social commentary that Chan included. For the most part, Chan fit these moments into the novel, without it feeling like the purpose was to point out the social commentary.
The protagonist, Frida, is a Chinese-American woman living in Philadelphia, co-parenting her one-year-old daughter with her white ex-husband. The book begins with Frida in a desperate situation, leaving the house with her daughter still inside. Frida was then reported for neglect, which thus sparks an investigation as to whether or not Frida is a suitable mother. She is soon thrown into the rehab-esque mothering program: The School for Good Mothers.
Throughout Frida’s journey, Chan comments on the power of men; specifically white men, in the government and their ability to take charge of such situations like custody battles. It also displays the dichotomy between a Chinese-American woman versus a white woman in motherhood, and how impossible it is to fit into the “good mother” stereotype; and further, what society deems is the “correct” way to do things.
This insightful and captivating piece of fiction provides a purpose by provoking questions from the reader, who seemingly lives in a world not too unlike ours.
The School for Good Mothers is also an interesting read given the current political climate. Laws are being overturned that protect women’s rights, southern politicians are trying to get IUDs and other forms of birth control banned, and women are not able to control their bodies.
Much like Frida, who feels as if her actions will hurt her odds of custody, regardless of what she does, the lack of control is something that countless women and uterus-owners across America are feeling.
This dystopian society where a woman cannot make mistakes or get tried in a custody battle will make readers question how far government officials can go.
As much as I love to recommend this book, to be frank, it doesn’t always have the best reviews overall. Many people explain that the beginning chapters are monotonous and fairly repetitive. However, the general consensus is that it picks up in the second half, which makes the build of the first half worth it. If this is the case, listening to The School for Good Mothers as an audiobook instead may help with the pacing. There are still many valuable components of the book that can encapsulate readers.
The School for Good Mothers is definitely one to make it onto the TBR.
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