Editorial note: I received a copy of The School for Good Mothers in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan is a heartbreaking story about motherhood, mistakes and lasting choices.
This novel is so well-written but oh gosh, it’s a hard read. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story that actually made me tear up. I’ll get choked up at movies and TV shows fairly easily (example: any Shark Tank episode) but I don’t get like that with novels very often. Yes, various stories can get to me but actual tears is reserved for stories that truly make an impact. And The School for Good Mothers is that kind of novel.
I finished the story while my 11-month-old napped on me and it definitely caused me to hug him a little tighter. I haven’t read such a raw story about motherhood in quite some time. This one is so thought-provoking—there’s so many layers and much to discuss. I see why Jenna Bush Hager chose this for her January book club selection. It’s one not to miss for sure.
What’s the Story About
Frida Liu is the mother of a toddler girl named Harriet. She splits custody with her ex-husband who cheated on her while she was pregnant. She works a job she doesn’t enjoy but it gives her the flexibility to stay at home so she can spend more time with her daughter when she has her.
However, one night, Harriet has an ear infection and is up all night crying, which means Frida is getting almost no sleep. Since Frida is a single mom, there’s no one to help her out and after a string of poor sleep nights, she makes a very bad and life-altering decision: she leaves Harriet alone for two hours.
Neighbors make a report and the state takes her daughter away. A host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.
Frida has to do whatever it takes to show the state that she is fit to be Harriet’s mother.
A Bad Decision
Sleep deprivation is one of the hardest things to endure. Especially when you have a young child and you don’t get a day off to catch up on sleep. Frida’s bad decision is a result of a lot of factors but mainly because of poor sleep. And when you take in consideration that she’s all alone, plus her ex-husband left her for another woman right after the birth of their daughter—it’s unimaginable what she’s dealing with.
I found myself sympathizing with Frida but also judging her decisions and getting quite frustrated with her actions—leaving a child alone for two hours is horrific. But yet, I feel that it shows how hard is it to raise a child all alone and not have anyone she can turn to. It’s so complicated all the emotions I felt as I read Frida’s journey.
Frida defines the day she left Harriet alone as a bad day but it becomes much more than that.
The novel definitely has a sci-fi feel to it but in a quiet and unassuming way. The government program that Frida eventually has to endure is beyond chilling.
I thought an interesting section is when Frida is confused and horrified to learn the actions the state will take if the mother gets in trouble for something in relation to their child. And her lawyer tells her that it’s been going on for a while but before that day, it didn’t apply to Frida so it’s clear she took no interest in it.
This is an eerie reminder of how many people don’t pay much attention to what’s being passed in both D.C. and a local level and how it really can have an impact on your every day life.
Eventually, Frida does go to the “school,” which is a year-long training program to turn ‘bad’ mothers into ‘good’ mothers. There, Frida meets a cast of characters from all kinds of backgrounds. There’s classism, racism and more all played out. And there’s plenty of judgment among each other too. But some of the women do bond together as well.
I felt the novel really took off once Frida entered the school. The story shows the pressure mothers are on and how society does not give mothers any leeway or breaks. It was especially interesting when the women meet the men who are at a school for dads and how different the treatment is—the dads are treated less harshly.
The School for Good Mothers is an exceptional novel that is compelling but also quite scary in many ways. It will make you reflect on so much. This is the ideal book club selection. For book clubs, check out my discussion questions here.