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‘The School for Good Mothers’ offers a chilling look at the perils of ‘perfect’ parenting

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Beowulf Sheehan
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jessaminechan.com
Jessamine Chan

It didn’t take much arm-twisting for me to pick up Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, “The School for Good Mothers.”

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It’s described as “taut and explosive.” Compared with “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Orange is the New Black.” And if that wasn’t enough, the subject matter is right up my alley – motherhood, guilt, and a dystopian world in which parents are forced to prove their worth.

Chan’s novel tells the story of Frida, a divorced mom with a part-time job at a university and an 18-month-old daughter named Harriet. During one particularly exhausting day, Frida leaves Harriet home alone in her Exersaucer while she fetches coffee and some papers from work. The toddler is taken into custody and sent to live with Frida’s ex-husband. And Frida is sent to a reform school for mothers – a Big Brother-like institution where she is forced to repent and relearn. “I am a bad mother,” the women are ordered to recite. “But I am learning to be good.”

Paired with creepy, lifelike robot children, the mothers learn to speak “motherese” and to always put their children’s needs above their own. They are surveilled and tested. They earn or lose privileges based on how quickly they can soothe a cranky toddler or get them through an Easter egg hunt unscathed.

Chan deftly portrays the perils of “perfect” parenting and the guilt heaped upon mothers by society and one another. This novel is captivating and thought-provoking and would make an excellent book club pick.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.