A Mom’s Rehabilitation in Jessamine Chan’s First Novel – Chicago Magazine
EEven reading about parenthood can be exhausting. The compensatory pleasures – the tenderness of a child’s embrace, the excitement of first steps and first words, the depth of unconditional love – don’t really show up on the page. But the drudgery of parenthood, with its repetitive tasks and seemingly incessant demands, is much easier to pass on.
The case of Frida Liu, 39, the intermittently sympathetic protagonist of Jessamine Chan’s first novel, The school of good mothers (Simon & Schuster), is complicated by his personal and professional struggles. Her marriage to Gust, a man she still loves, burned her infidelity, and his departure leaves her devastated and struggling to earn money. And although Gust (helped by his younger, health-obsessed girlfriend, Susanna) shares custody of their 18-month-old daughter, Harriet, Frida’s time alone with the toddler wears her down.
After too many sleep-deprived nights, the harassed telework mum is having what she describes as “a really bad day”. Leaving Harriet safe in a device called ExerSaucer, she runs to get coffee and a file from her desk. She has no intention of lingering, but relishing her rare freedom, she stays away for hours – and an unidentified neighbor reports her daughter’s screams to the authorities.
Welcome to Chan’s dystopian surveillance state. “It’s not like there’s any privacy anymore,” Frida’s ineffectual lawyer tells her. “They will watch you. What may be scariest about the society Chan envisions is that it seems so close to our own. Frida and her intimates live in familiar neighborhoods in Philadelphia, checking out the names of the city’s most popular restaurants and bustling about on their smartphones like the rest of us. (Chan lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter but grew up in Oak Park; Frida is originally from Evanston. The author, like her character, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and graduated from Brown and Columbia.)
In Chan’s fictional Philadelphia, perfect motherhood is not just an ideal supported by social norms. It is the law, enforced with increasing rigor. Fathers matter but are held to lower standards. Race also remains an issue, with cracks and anxieties resembling our own. Social workers appear as Dickensian figures of horror, tormenting mothers rather than helping motherless children.
After Frida’s misstep, Harriet is placed with her father, and every room in Frida’s house, except her bathroom, is equipped with a camera to allow round-the-clock observation of her emotions and of his behavior. There are court appearances, consent forms, other remnants of judicial normality. But there is no real attraction. “We’ll fix you, Ms. Liu,” a judge said. We have entered the terrifying territory of George Orwell 1984 and Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale— or present-day Texas, where women’s bodies are controlled by the state and vigilante justice has been enshrined in law.
In Chan’s novel, things will only get worse. Frida’s optimism about her fate is naïve. To recover her maternal rights, she must submit to the tutelage of a new experimental school whose goal is to remedy her failings. It’s not exactly a prison; it is the converted campus of a bankrupt liberal arts college. But there are uniforms, curfews, mandatory routines – and an electrified fence. If mothers do not function well, they will lose their children. And if they reveal the secrets of the school, their names will be added to the register of negligent parents.
At school, mothers are identified by their crimes – abandonment, neglect, physical abuse, even complaining too much about their children on social media. One was disciplined for “coddling” her teenage son, including cutting his food and helping him shave.
These wandering mothers must now practice their parenting skills on robot dolls, whose internal cameras will monitor their every move. “The doll will register where the mother’s hands are placed, sense the tension in her body, her temperature and posture, how often she makes eye contact, the quality and authenticity of her emotions,” Chan writes. Although filled with blue liquid and sometimes requiring repair, the dolls are eerily realistic, articulated, volatile and capable of learning.
Frida and the other mothers navigate a series of parenting units, competing with each other to win coveted phone calls home. They practice feeding their dolls, making them play, protecting them from danger. They recite mantras such as “I’m a bad mother, but I’m learning to be good” – an indoctrination with echoes of China’s Cultural Revolution. “A mother is always patient. A mother is always kind. A mother always gives,” preach the instructors. As mothers struggle to confirm, the rules keep changing.
Counselors and social workers assess the never-promising mothers’ chances of getting their children back. In the absence of their children, mothers become attached to their dolls.
Predictably, cliques and feuds develop, often along racial lines. The same goes for romances, stimulated by contact with men from a similar (though less strict) school for fathers. Although she misses her daughter, the decidedly flawed Frida is also hungry for male attention. (Sex is always a wild card in Chan’s world.) Frida can be reckless. It’s a fundamental trait that won’t change no matter how much social engineering she endures. And that makes the book’s not-quite-surprising ending inevitable.
The first third or so of Chan’s novel is pretty much as advertised — a gripping page-turner that keeps readers hooked on the author’s crisp prose, plot twists, and visionary desperation. The situation deteriorates, the threat crescendos. But then the narrative pace slows. The tasks mothers have to take on begin to feel repetitive, as do the harsh consequences of failure.
As time goes by, the grim outcome of the Frida affair seems almost certain. Can we really escape this dark mirror image of motherhood?