Jul 012022

The School For Good Mothers, by Jessamine Chan

Synopsis: Women who aren’t “good enough” mothers — as determined by a completely arbitrary and ultimately random process — are sent to a re-education camp to be psychologically tortured.

Book Review: Boy, this is such a mixed bag. Let’s go over some highlights/lowlights and see where it gets us.

Highlight: This is extremely good outrage porn. The injustice of the situation, the sheer fist-clenching fury it creates, is absolutely exquisite. This sort of shit should not happen to anyone. Yes, the protag did a bad thing. Yes, she’s highly neurotic and unlikable. But no one deserves to be put through the torture she is subjected to. If anything, the neurosis makes her more pitiable. The fact that it sounds like she’s never had an enjoyable sexual experience in her lifetime is tragic.

A system that randomly tortures people for minor negligence to this extent is corrupt and deserves to be burned to the ground. In this way, Good Mothers also really highlights the vileness of woke cancel culture, without ever being literally “about” that. One of the strengths of SF/F!

Lowlight: It’s written by an MFA. MFA programs cripple writers in a myriad of ways, but here’s the two major ones that apply to Good Mothers:

  1. They teach people how to craft beautiful sentences while neglecting the skill of telling a compelling story. The result is beautiful prose that is scattered and unfocused. Chan manages to overcome this through the sheer power of the raw outrage she pulls from us. But replacing craft with emotional brute force only goes so far.
  2. They smother an author’s voice in favor of imitating a fashionable high-brow flair. The previous generation of LitFic authors had a unique sound that set them apart, and now if you don’t sound enough like that then you aren’t serious fiction. It saps the life from a novel when it’s forced to walk in shoes that don’t fit it, and Good Mothers felt like it was chaffing at the seams often.

Highlight: It gets progressively better as it goes on. The first 20% of it is pure LitFic, to the point that I was about ready to quit, when at last we get to the School. The deeper into the novel we go, the more it embraces satire and absurdism. The Mothers are forced to chant debasements as shows of loyalty. They are taught that A Good Mother Is Never Lonely. A Good Mother Never Fails. A Good Mother can literally lift a car if she needs to. Affection is taught as a series of physical techniques similar to police submission-holds, which mothers must master and deploy on command. By the end of the novel… well, that’s a spoiler. The descent into madness is great.

Lowlight: It is set in the present day. “Handmaid’s Tale” is in the future, where we can believe something horrible happened to create such a vile society. “Brazil” is set in an alternative-world present-day, where we can believe something bizarre happened to remake the world into this mess. “The Metamorphosis” starts out with the protag turning into a cockroach, so we know we’re not in real reality.

“Good Mothers” is just the real world, today. The android children are a plot device introduced a fair distance into the story, and they explicitly had no effect upon greater society (since they were secret). This makes “Good Mothers” incredibly hard to swallow. So hard, in fact, that this was a major complaint of every single member of our book club. Not a single one of us could get over the fact that this is supposed to be close to the world we actually inhabit. The strain on suspension of disbelief is too great. Yes, we all know that some states have bad agencies, and there really are a few social workers this callous, some judges this ignorant, some moralist-scolds this evil.

But what we’re reading isn’t an insane fluke of everything lining up just right to screw one innocent person. This is a deliberate choice by a lot of people in power. There is constant contact with the outside world, and many people with the means and motivation to contact the media. There is no way that this could happen in the US in the present day. The professional outrage would be overwhelming. The public outrage would be overwhelming. There would be major political and social repercussions. I mean hell, the outrage is the whole point of the novel! Human-level AI without rights in nearly perfectly-human android bodies I can buy. But torture camps for parents that let their children walk home from the library? And there’s no media circuses and major legal crusades? Come on now.

If the absurdist satire elements had been present from the beginning, this would have been far more believable and enjoyable.

Highlight: It’s a good reminder that everyone should own at least one gun.

Highlight: I was being literal when I said it’s outrage porn. Like sex-porn, it relies entirely on supernormal stimulation of basic biological urges. Controversially, I like porn. I like the blast of stimulus when it’s tuned just right to really grab a drive and push it past the redline. As long as the viewer/reader remembers that this is not how human biology actually works, this is not how humans actually behave, that none of this is remotely real, it’s great fun!

Highlight: The ending is fucking awesome, and super satisfying.

Lowlight: Whenever something interesting was about to happen, the novel would always cut away and then pick up after the action, so the characters could process their feelings about what just happened. The thing we didn’t see, and are simply told the resolution of in 1-2 sentences. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It completely removed the “Scene” part of the Scene And Sequel structure. I don’t know if this is another MFA-created issue, but boy was it irritating. The only exception is the very very end, which may be why the ending was so satisfying. After being edged for 300 pages, we finally get to see some actual action.

Honestly, I think much of the problem with this book is the marketing, combined with a weak start that clings too tightly to LitFic sensibilities. If you’re down for some good outrage porn, totally Recommended. :)

Book Club Review: Our book club fell into two groups – those who are turned off by outrage porn, and those who aren’t. The first group bounced quickly, and didn’t particularly like it. The second group was compelled by the power of porn to read it all the way through, despite complaints. The conversation was pretty darn fun, which is what I would expect from this sort of thing. If most of your book club is down for some good ol’ outrage, Recommended.

The School For Good Mothers on Amazon (sponsor link)

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