by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
During the holiday season, the pressure on American mothers can be immense. Amidst stressful weeks that demand maximum happiness, working mothers might struggle to meet the family’s emotional and logistical needs, to give young children the gifts of time, energy, affection, patience, and material goods; to meet, in short, a level of nearly impossible maternal virtue. This month, Booked and Printed visits with a devoted, besieged mother who commits a criminal transgression, one a futuristic criminal justice system will treat with sinister, and thoroughly modern methods.
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In Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers, Frida Liu is summoned to a police station in Philadelphia. A single mother with insomnia and depression, Frida had been having a bad day, one she tried to ameliorate with a coffee and a trip to the office. In her bleary distraction and need for a break, she left her fussy toddler alone, at home, for over two hours.
Now Frida’s beloved child, Harriet, is in the custody of an officer. And then a social worker. And then Frida’s ex-husband and his younger, more patient, and beautiful new partner. The opening of the novel comprises a slow-moving nightmare, one that begins in an all-too-familiar reality for exhausted mothers prone to lonely mistakes. Abandoned by the networks and the structures that might have supported her in a different kind of society—universal childcare, mental health care, subsidies for working parents—Frida must struggle through a legal system’s increasing demands. In the merciless eyes of the new law, it is her only hope for proving herself worthy to remain Harriet’s parent.
Chan begins the novel in a familiar Philadelphia. The futuristic, speculative elements she adds to Frida’s required atonement feel claustrophobically close. Officious state employees install cameras in every room of her apartment. They monitor her social life, her housekeeping, and her emotions. They track her phone. Frida undergoes interviews with her attorney, her social worker, a psychologist, and a judge, all increasingly punitive even as she excessively apologizes, obsessively cleans, and frantically nurtures her confused and distressed daughter. Frida reflects on Gust, the handsome, selfish ex-husband who left her while Harriet was a newborn, and whose new partnership offers a cleaner house and more economic stability. She thinks of her own parents, stoic Chinese immigrants who live with the scars of the Cultural Revolution and who send her money and urge her to come home.
In the end, her introspection, her apologies, and her kowtowing to the cameras and officials are not enough. The state has a new program: a year-long separation from her child, and from society, at The School for Good Mothers, an institution set on the grounds of a bankrupt liberal arts college. She must remain there for the full year; leaving early will result in the immediate termination of her parental rights and a blot on her public record that will prevent her from housing, employment, and any other American task requiring a social security number.
Through Frida’s plight, Chan constructs a grim, un-put-down-able satire of motherhood and heterosexual parenting in contemporary America. During her year in confinement, Frida and her cohort repeat their names and their sins: neglect, abuse, leaving a child in a car during a job interview, rolling over onto a child while cosleeping. The instructors monitor the mothers’ heart rates and scan their brains for signs of healthy parenting instincts. And their real children are replaced with robot children: eerily realistic silicone robots filled with blue coolant, capable of their own emotions, verbal responses, and even tears. If the mothers fail to soothe and nurture these artificial children, they will forever be separated from their own.
The School for Good Mothers is funny, enraging, and unsettling. Everyday double standards and injustices all play a part in the mothers’ plights, as they often do in real life. While the mothers have their video chat privileges removed from them for slight infractions, such as hugging for too long or too short a time, the school for fathers nearby allows for unconditional hour-long Skype sessions each week. The mothers are required to scrape out and replace the coolant for their distressed robot children; the fathers have technicians do this violating task for them.
Readers will feel as entrapped by the story as Frida does by the futuristic legal system, down to her conclusive, pivotal decision: her final holiday gift to the daughter she loves.
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Elsewhere in the mystery world, several notable works are worth adding to the gift list. Fans of rollicking nonfiction might crack open Rogues’ Gallery by John Oller; it offers a textured history of criminality, policing, and punishment in New York City during the Gilded Age, when Irish, Italian, and German Jewish organized crime, and early methods of detective work, thrived during the extreme wealth gap of the era. Those fascinated by the wiles of wheelers and dealers could enjoy Tori Telfer’s Confident Women: Swinders, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion: Each chapter features clever, criminal characters the reader might secretly cheer on in their breaking of mores and taking of goods.
Jane K. Cleland’s cozy sleuth, Josie Prescott, returns with Jane Austen’s Lost Letters; here, the antiques expert finds herself on a dangerous quest to find out if the epistles she’s handed are truly the famed author’s missives.
For teen readers, YA author Marieke Nijkamp returns with At the End of Everything, the story of juvenile detainees abandoned at their detention center during a pandemic. And for middle grade readers, debut author Arathi Menon’s A Mystery at Lili Villa immerses readers in a small Indian village where a trio of young cousins try to solve a jewelry theft, questioning the town’s residents along the way.