The School For Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan (2022) is frightening because it is our world taken just one not-so-unlikely step further.
Frida Liu is the 39-year old Chinese-American mother to Harriet, a toddler, and shares custody with her ex-husband, Gust, who had an affair with Susanna while Frida was still pregnant with Harriet. Frida discovered the affair while still in a post-partum haze, off anti-depressants, when Harriet was 2 months old. Gust moved in with Susanna, and Frida remains shocked and resentful about the divorce and situation, trying to successfully manage an academic career and needy toddler,
On one very bad day, after several days with little sleep because Harriet was fighting an ear infection, Frida puts Harriet in her exer-saucer and leaves the house to get a coffee because she just needs a few minutes of a break. While out, she runs to her office to get some papers that aren’t available electronically, and when she returns 2 hours later, the neighbors have called the police because of Harriet’s unremitting screams.
Now Frida is caught up in the maze of child protective services, supervised visitation, and the evaluation and surveillance of every part of her life. In order to prevent termination of her parental rights, Frida agrees to attend a newly-developed year-long rehabilitation program held on a former college campus, where neglectful and abusive parents are taught proper parenting skills, and the mantra is “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”
The program is grotesque, not administered fairly, and completely secret, as all mothers have to sign nondisclosure agreements, and the promised 10-minute weekly video calls are cancelled for any transgression, however minor. It’s grueling, and completely plausible. Chan has taken our world just one terrifying step further. I could not stop listening–Frida’s and the other mother’s stories will stay with you for a long time.
Although there are many descriptions of character’s bodies, I would characterize School For Good Mothers as weight-neutral. One character, the mother who is the “baddest bitch”–having done the worst imaginable to her six children–is described neutrally as “a chubby, baby-faced Latina mother”, and other mothers “uncharitably” make fun of her body. But she also turns out to be the most proficient mother, often winning the top spot, as they proceed through their lessons.
Frida is terrified that without her, Gust’s girlfriend will go overboard on her “clean-eating” kick and Harriet will become too thin and lose her much-loved chubby cheeks, which led to Harriet being called xiao long bao, “little soup dumpling”, by her Chinese grandparents. Frida’s parents always tell her that she’s too thin whenever they see her. There aren’t any characters whose fatness is used as shorthand for any character defects, but there aren’t any explicitly fat-positive characters, either.
Fans of Margaret Atwood, Meg Elison, or speculative fiction in general should not miss The School For Good Mothers.