Brit Bennett's striking debut, The Mothers
, unfurls in Oceanside, a sun-drenched coastal town just north of San Diego, a place populated by characters who move fluidly between the seaside setting of lazy bars and beach bungalows and the decidedly nonfrivolous Upper Room Chapel, the black church that is the novel's crucible. Nadia Turner, Aubrey Evans, and Luke Sheppard are millennials who should be eager to start their adult lives. Instead, they are fractured, each privately nursing the pain of loss and disappointment; the bonds they forge with one another are urgent and intimate. Bennet plumbs these stormy attachments, taking her reader on a journey through the fraught twists and turns of first love. She focuses deftly on 17-year-old Nadia, the most complicated of the three, who struggles to reconcile her bottomless need for connection with her equally fierce ambition. The question for Nadia is whether, ultimately, her drive to succeed will take precedence over the needs of those she claims to love.
Adding dimensions and a sense of the otherworldly to this powerful story are the Mothers, a chorus of church elders, resident moralists who offer a running commentary on everything from premarital sex to the power of prayer. In tone and cadence, their words evoke those of Toni Morrison, though these matrons are less saintly and more prone to judgement and gossip. Their flaws invite us to question issues of community, piety, tradition.
America needs more books like The Mothers, which quietly, but critically, deepens our appreciation of the black experience, and expands our collective understanding of what it means now to be growing up and grasping for direction and affection.