Thursday, February 16, 2017

What did the In-Store Lit Group think of Brit Bennett's "The Mothers"?

How many authors can say that the novel they started in high school not only was published by a major imprint but went on to be shortlisted for a major prize? But that's the story of Brit Bennett, the author of The Mothers. This first novel, a favorite of booksellers nationally (it was the #1 Indie Next Pick for October 2016), is about Nadia, a teenager who, in the wake of her mother's suicide, starts acting act. She has an affair with Luke, the son of the minister at a storefront church. When things go wrong, the church tries to fix the problem by giving Nadia a job at the church office where she befriends Aubrey, a more reverant young woman, who of course, winds up dating Luke.

It's a classic love triangle, which as Ms. Bennett notes, is far more interesting than a love rectangle.

It's always tough to write a post about a book like The Mothers, which we already wrote so much about, first when the book was released last fall, and then in the weeks leading up to our visit from Bennett, where we were trying to convince folks to attend. Bennett's event delivered everything we promised -- she did a great job connecting with two high school classes in the morning, spoke frankly to our In-store Lit Group and answered spoiler questions, and then went on to read and talk about The Mothers to a diverse group of attendees. To be fair, it was mostly women, but that sentence is true when it comes to age and ethnicity.

There are several hot-button issues that ground the novel -- race and abortion. But though Bennett has written eloquently about race in her essays, the novel is more nuanced. As Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote in The Guardian. "That abortion could negatively affect a woman's life in the long term is usually reserved for the most rabid of anti-choice activists. The contentious issue surrounds the novel, and it's a credit to Bennett that it's dealt with so carefully in her narrative. Nadia doesn't want to be pregnant, so she has an abortion, and gets on with her life. But she doesn't pretend it never happened. The Mothers isn't explicitly feminist, in the same way that it isn't explicityly a novel abou the black experience. It makes all the points it needs to without being obvious."

If you asked Bennett what the book was about, she would definitely say that gossip is one of the overall themes. It is part of the framing device that has the church women commenting in their generally judgmental voices about what's going on, and it explains the ending that not everyone loves, but I'm up for defending. And no, I'm not going to say what that ending is.

At the discussion, Suzanne noted what was very strong to me, that the mothers function like a Greek chorus, leading me to think of all the other Greek Chorus novels I've read. I have to think about that and come up with a list!

As readers know, I love a strong setting and I really enjoyed San Diego and the Oceanview neighborhood. It was a place that I don't think has been represented well in fiction, coastal, diverse, and with a strong military presence. There's a certain seediness in the story, and a bit of transience. I can see that bar/restaurant that plays a bit role in the story and I can tell you I'm not planning on ordering anything.

Our group had a discussion about whether the book could have been published as YA. There are all these unspoken rules about YA, but one way that I think the book succeeded in the genre, is that it really stayed close in the head of Nadia. The love triangle, the family stress, the issues, all of them were certainly hallmarks of the best YA fiction. But there are other parts of the novel that probably would have been stripped away by a YA editor. Could it have been acquired by a YA editor? Absolutely. But the end result would have likely been a very different book.

And finally, here's a fascinating detail that throws a little light on the whole book. The story was originally from Aubrey's perspective, and that makes sense, as Bennett's background is much closer to Aubrey's. Her father was a Deacon at their predominantly African American Protestant Church while her mother was an Observant Catholic, worshipping at church that was predominantly white. So if you question whether the details, you should know that Bennett lived them.

Nadia was in the background, a character with a secret. And it was only when one of Bennett's teachers questioned her dislike of the Nadia character that the metamorphosis started and The Mothers started turning into Nadia's story.

Want more? If you haven't read this profile of Bennett in The New York Times from Alexandra Alter, you should. And here's an interview with Graison Dangor at Studio 360.

Bennett was asked at her various events about books. Interestingly enough, we'd already discussed several of her favorites at the In-Store Lit Group, including Angela Flournoy's The Turner House and Tayari Jones's Silver Sparrow. I asked Bennett if she knew when Jones would have another novel coming, and Jones had recently posted that 2018 was the likely publication year. She also noted that she was influenced by James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Toni Morrison is one of her literary idols and she felt the best book to start with is Song of Solomon. Another writer that came up several times was Dorothy Allison, referring both to Bastard Out of Carolina (which comes up periodically in other situations) and Cavedweller (which does not). I was pleased to note that I attended Allison's Cavedweller reading at a Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop and I can say she was one of the best readers I've ever come across.

Up next on Monday, March 6, another 6 pm discussion, this time for Paul Beatty's The Sellout. We're starting early because several of us want to attend the 7 pm talk with Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club and the just-released Books for Living.

On Monday, April 3, 7 pm, we'll be discussing the Milwaukee Big Read, Julia Avarez's In the Time of the Butterflies. We are just one of many book clubs who will be featuring this title. Our March discussion will have a representative from the Milwaukee Public Library discussing the program.

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