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‘The School for Good Mothers’ book review: The perils of being a parent

‘The School for Good Mothers’ book review: The perils of being a parent

In Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, ‘The School for Good Mothers,’ we meet Frida Liu, a 39-year-old single mother, who is overworked and struggling to stay on top of her personal and professional duties. Then one day, in an insomnia-induced irrational state, she leaves her 18-month-old daughter Harriet alone at home for two hours. She has to go to the office to retrieve a file.

Next thing she knows, she’s being hauled into police custody for child abandonment. Her daughter is handed over to her ex-husband and his partner. But Frida isn’t a bad mother. She just had a bad moment. Even when she tries to repent and convince the ‘authorities’ that she loves Harriet and won’t repeat her mistake, everything she does is interpreted as evidence of her negligence and incompetence.

She is eventually sent to a place that teaches women how to be good mothers. The crimes of the other mothers range from testing positive for marijuana use to letting her child play alone. Each woman is assigned a robotic child and she must practice her parenting skills—hugging (for not a second too long or less), kissing, maintaining eye contact, etc.—with it.

In order to get Harriet back, Frida has to be able to show those in charge that she is capable of putting her child before her in all instances by loving the robot like it’s her child. But it’s not easy. The robot is programmed to be difficult and it sends recorded data to the authorities. The ‘experimental rehab facility’ with cameras everywhere is like a prison and the tiniest violation of rules can lead to permanent termination of parental rights. There is no way to win but countless ways in which you could be deemed an unfit parent.

The School for Good Mothers isn’t a horror novel. But you will be spooked nonetheless. It has a chilling dystopian feel to it that makes you shudder. It makes you question the unnecessary societal burden of expectations that’s put primarily on the mothers. Why are women expected to be at the top of their game when it comes to nurturing? Do they have to love being a parent all the time or are they allowed to be tired and maybe even crib about how draining it is once in a while?

The book is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Those who have enjoyed reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ will enjoy Chan’s The School for Good Mothers as there are many similarities between the two stories. But I suggest you go into it with an open mind as many instances will have you rolling your eyes at the incredulity of it all.


The School for Good Mothers

Jessamine Chan

Published: 2022

Publisher: Penguin Books

Pages: 319, Paperback