by Brit Bennett
This debut novel really got under my skin, and for days I’ve been trying to formulate a review that does it justice, and I’m still not sure I can.
Set in a black community in San Diego, California, the central character is Nadia Turner, who, at the beginning of the story is a seventeen-year-old high school senior whose life has recently been shattered by her mother’s violent suicide – which nobody saw coming. Nadia’s father, a retired Marine, has retreated into quiet grief, and Nadia, in her own grief, becomes a wild girl who the rest of the parishioners at Upper Room Chapel whisper about. Nadia enters a brief relationship with the reverend’s son, twenty-one-year old Luke Sheppard, whose ambitions to play pro football were dashed by a serious injury. An unplanned pregnancy results, and the choice that is made, and how exactly that choice is handled by both Luke and Nadia, reverberates out into their close-knit community, and into their adult lives. That summer – the summer Nadia quietly has an abortion, the summer before she is set to head off to college in Chicago on an academic scholarship – she finds unexpected solace in her blossoming friendship with Aubrey, a quiet, pious girl her age. The two girls are opposite in almost every way, but they both throw themselves into a friendship that will bind them for many years.
The book’s title refers to a small group of elderly women, also from the Upper Room Chapel congregation, who collect all the prayer requests and meet regularly to pray together. These women are the eyes and ears of this little community, and the story is narrated by them. But more than them, the title refers to mothers who leave, mothers who stay, mothers who choose not to be mothers, and all the ways community members mother one another.
Bennett has created a vivid community, and Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are complex, none of them all good or all bad. I will say that I deeply hope that nobody reads this book and takes it as a cautionary tale about abortion, because I don’t think that’s the intent at all. It’s neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of abortion, but rather an extremely intelligent and deeply felt story about loss, grief, family ties, community ties, ambition, and how the choices we make when we’re young can follow us in good and bad ways.
I really enjoyed this book; I think I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.