“But we were girls once, which is to say, we have all loved an ain’t-shit man.”
The Mothers by Brit Bennett has been on my Goodreads list for about a year now. I picked it up nearly every time I ventured into a bookstore during 2017, and finally found my perfect copy about a month ago in Chevalier’s books. This bookstore has quickly become one of my favorites in my new Los Angeles home, and they pleasantly surprised me by selling me this particular signed copy (signed with a sharpie! In store!). I didn’t discover the signature until after I’d finished the dazzling story, which only made my relationship to the book stronger.
The title of this story applies to nearly every character at some point or another in the story; the women are mothers or would have been mothers, are caretakers and lovers and providers. A group of women at Upper Room, the local community church, calls themselves The Mothers, and is known as such in their small town. Bennett employs their narrative voice throughout the novel, introducing chapters with a first person plural (We). The use of the first person plural voice is so underutilized in contemporary literature, and Bennett uses it expertly; it’s not overdone, but is subtle, present in some parts of the story and absent in others. The Mothers have a sense of omnipresence over Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, but it is perhaps a faulty presence, one they’ve given to themselves. In fact, their sense of Nadia’s story is more than incomplete. The Mothers’ gossip and rumors only tell a small portion of the story, the rest of which Bennett completes with third person limited narrations.
This is a short novel- the story finishes just under 300 pages (in the paperback edition). But Bennett makes excellent use of those few pages, slamming a dynamic story that moves effortlessly from adolescence to adulthood; the pacing of the story is perfect, and the character’s aging goes nearly unnoticed and unblemished. The heartbreaks of adolescence condensate into the more disastrous and damaging heartbreaks of adulthood in The Mothers.
At the start of the story, the Mothers of Upper Room tell the audience that it all started with a rumor- a rumor that Nadia Turner, the seventeen year old girl whose mother committed suicide a few years prior to the actions of the story, was pregnant with Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son’s, baby. Further, the rumor went, she was suddenly ‘unpregnant,’ an abortion said to have taken place swiftly and securely. The Mothers tell their audience that they should have wanted Nadia, that they knew Luke and had known Lukes previously: “We would’ve told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living, we have known men. Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.”
This is my favorite passage from the novel- it reveals a theme of the book, one that elevates above the typical trials and lessons of passion and love. The Mothers gives voice to one of the many plights of women, all women, those before us and those after us: we can’t force love, can’t scrape that jar of honey forever. We can’t make the men we love choose us or choose the right decisions. We can’t even make them choose their own happiness. And perhaps even more heartbreaking- we’ll live off of the scraps of love they do give us, licking it up and forcing sustainability far after it’s gone.
Nadia Turner did indeed get pregnant by Luke Sheppard, and she did indeed have an abortion. The first section of the novel defines their romance, an innocent first love punctuated by sex in parents’ houses and dates during his work shift. Bennett tells the story of their romance in flashbacks, taking us through the gritty details of Nadia’s abortion at the clinic (and Luke’s abandonment, her embarrassment at having a nurse take her home, at being “one of those” abandoned girls), and then filling us in on the love these two developed and cultivated prior. We come to see this romance as significant, as deep rather than innocent. In one instance, after Nadia gets accepted into University of Michigan, we see the young couple celebrating at the pier: “She licked cinnamon sugar off her fingers, sun-heavy and happy, the type of happiness that before might have felt ordinary, but now seemed fragile, like if she stood too quickly, it might slide off her shoulders and break.” The before Nadia refers to here may be in regards to the abortion, but I think it also refers to her mother’s death; this ghostly presence throughout the story hits Nadia hard, and I believe it taught her to catalogue and remember the happy moments, the effortless ability to smile at licking cinnamon off of your lover’s hands.
After her abortion, Nadia becomes enraged at Luke for abandoning her, for making her feel as if their love wasn’t as strong or serious as she knew it to be. She cannot accept what the mothers have foretold- that he was offering only that littlebit love, that he had indeed abandoned her (we’ll see later that perhaps it was Nadia who was right instead, to the mother’s chagrin). She ends up wrecking her father’s truck after drinking too much at a party where she confronted Luke, and in an effort at retribution, her father forces her to work at Upper Room to pay him back for the truck’s damages. Here, Nadia works for Mrs. Sheppard, an intimidating woman whose intimidation is made worse by the assumed secret Nadia is keeping from her (we’ll find out later in the story that Mrs. Sheppard knew the entire time and had, in fact, paid for the abortion). Also at Upper Room, Nadia first interacts with Aubrey Evans, a religious girl volunteering. The stark differences between the two is obvious- Nadia assumes, wrongly, that Aubrey has not been touched by grief, that her shining smile and naivety mean she has not felt loss: “Her yellow flip-flops had sunflowers in the center, as if they were blooming from between her toes. Watching her flounce around in them, Nadia wanted to rip the flowers off. How dare she enjoy something so stupid? She imagined Aubrey Evans in the shoe store, passing rows of sensible black sandals and plucking that sunflower pair off the shelf instead. As if she believed herself deserving of every flourish.” Nadia reads Aubrey wrong- it’s not that Aubrey believes herself worthy, but that she must convince herself she is.
The two girls embark on an epic and true friendship, spending a long summer together asking one another questions that only two people spending a summer together can: what were you like as a kid? what’s your best memory? Nadia never tells Aubrey about her abortion or about her relationship with Luke, perhaps too wounded and vulnerable still. We find out that Aubrey has demons of her own, griefs pertaining to her own mother that leave her breathless. Aubrey lives with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend because her mother’s boyfriend Paul molested Aubrey. The molestation is never clearly articulated, but is rather hinted at, a black hole that Bennett gets close to but vacates before entering. It’s another difference between the friends- Nadia’s grief she lives in and ponders at, Aubrey’s she shoves away.
“A girl nowadays has to get nice and close to tell if her man ain’t shit and by then, it might be too late. We were girls once. It’s exciting, loving someone who can never love you back. Freeing, in its own way. No shame in loving an ain’t-shit man, long as you get it out your system good and early. A tragic woman hooks into an ain’t-shit man, or worse, lets him hook into her. He will drag her until he tires. He will climb atop her shoulders and her body will sag from the weight of loving him.”
Is this a fair assessment given by the mothers of Luke Sheppard? It’s said directly before Bennett gives Luke his own third person limited voice, prompting us to go in with ain’t-shit opinions of him. But from his short moments, we learn that Luke wanted his and Nadia’s child. That his love for her was as she’d thought it to be, and that wrecking that love has turned him quiet and resolute. Luke confides to Nadia that he didn’t want to abort their baby the night before she leaves for Michigan, prompting Nadia to give an identity to her loss. Their Baby stays with her, grows and ages in the corners of her mind as lively as he would on the floor of her home.
Nadia finds a new life in Michigan, far away from Aubrey and Luke and memories of loss: “At home, loss was everywhere; she could barely see past it, like trying to look out a windowpane covered in fingerprints. She would always feel trapped behind that window, between her and the rest of the world, but at least in Ann Arbor, the glass was clearer.” In California, Luke starts playing football again with a semi-pro team, training his injured knee back and training his body to peak condition. Amidst working full time and practicing, Luke thinks about Nadia, and looks at her social media, at her new impressive lifestyle and her interesting boyfriend. Eventually, Luke creates an important relationship with one of his teammate’s wives, Cherry; the two bridge on romance, but never cross a defined line. Nonetheless, the football team attacks Luke, redamaging his injured leg and leading him to years of physical therapy and assisted living. In rehab, he meets Aubrey, the sweet girl bringing him treats and food from Upper Room. The two discuss Nadia, Luke never revealing their history, both Aubrey and Luke amazed at Nadia’s travels abroad. Aubrey and Luke grow close, and he becomes ardently impressed by her, sustaining a respect he hasn’t felt for anyone before. He imagines his life with her, staying put, so contrary to Nadia’s: “He would live a small life, and instead of depressing him, the thought became comforting. For the first time, he no longer felt trapped. Instead, he felt safe.” Luke and Aubrey begin falling in love, and he reveals to her that a girl he’d once slept with had had an abortion. Luke seems to want to test Aubrey’s goodness, to punish his own un-goodness by the reveal. Nadia remains nameless, and the strange secret love triangle evolves.
Nadia returns home for Aubrey and Luke’s wedding; she still remains silent about her and Luke’s shared past. She feels out of place back in Oceanside, small and at the same time too big: “A prodigal daughter, you could pity. But she’d abandoned her home and returned better off, with stories of her fascinating college courses, her impressive internships, her cosmopolitan boyfriend, and her world travels. Was she pretentious now? Or had leaving caused an irreparable tear between her and the other women of Upper Room? Or maybe the fissure had always been there and leaving had allowed her to see it.” I feel so this way when I return home- both embarrassed and emboldened by the new life I’ve cultivated, shy and pretentious in the same minute. Nadia lives with this discomfort, coupled with her discomfort at the Luke history that is the only secret existing between she and Aubrey, and attempts to create an enthusiastically happy atmosphere for her soon-to-be-married friend. The two girls spend a day at the beach together, and meet two marines. Miller, one of the marines, flirts with Aubrey, and, very un-Audrey-like, she lies with him, making out and nearing sex more than she ever has before (even with Luke). She stops herself only barely.
Nadia watches Aubrey and Luke marry. She feels rage, happiness, envy, sadness: “he’d made her feel like love was something she had to claw her way into.” Why couldn’t he had loved her the way he seemed to love Aubrey? Why couldn’t he have picked her up at the clinic that day? She and Luke share a flask at the wedding, reminiscing and coming to terms with one another. Mrs. Sheppard approaches Nadia afterwards and reveals that she knows Nadia had had an abortion, and that she’d paid for it. She tells Nadia she knows what kind of girl she is, and warns her to leave her son alone. “Later she would wonder how Luke had found the money so quickly. She’d been so desperate, she’d imagined him capable of anything. Now she knew that he was.” This revelation reopens Nadia’s heartbreak, an unending tumult of loss and grief and what-could-have-been. As Luke promises to be good to Aubrey, Nadia dreams of their baby.
Nadia flies back to her life in Michigan and then to Chicago, where she embarks upon a breakup and law school. Bennett has effortlessly glided us into the character’s adult lives, Nadia’s full of coffee and cramming, Luke’s full of a quiet job he loves, Aubrey’s full of empty desires of motherhood. Nadia decides to stay far away from California, until her father’s grave injury prompts her to return indefinitely. This section introduces us to Nadia’s own motherhood, the way she cares for another avidly and serenely. Nadia stays longer than expected, Aubrey there in the hospital and there afterwards, assisting in any way she can. Luke helps, too, and Nadia ponders what being married means: “This had always frightened her about marriage: how satisfied married people seemed, how unable they were to ask for more. She couldn’t imagine feeling satisfied. She was always searching for the next challenge, the next job, the next city. In law school, she’d become prickly and analytical, gaining a sharpness while Luke had rounded and filled. She felt hungry all the time- always wanting, needing more- but Luke had pushed away from the table already, patting his full stomach.”
Nadia bonds with her father during their time together, and she learns more about her mother than she’d ever known. Aubrey undergoes tests for her fertility, worried that because Luke had gotten someone pregnant previously, their troubles must be her fault. At the clinic, the doctor asks Aubrey if she’s ever had an abortion, a question Nadia bristles at vocally. The entire appointment makes Nadia uneasy, but she goes to be a supportive friend, as Aubrey has done for her with her father. Eventually, Luke comes to help Nadia with her father, and gives her a much needed rest. He tells her he wants to take care of her, and they begin their long-awaited love affair again. “In her bedroom, the curtains whipped open in the breeze and Luke lowered her onto her childhood bed, which squeaked under their weight. Quiet, quiet. Not the rushed motions of their youth, a dress shoved up to her stomach, jeans sagging to his knees. Now he unbuttoned his shirt and folded it on the back of her desk chair. He slipped her socks down her ankles. He loosened her freshly washed hair and buried his face in it. Now they were slow and deliberate, the way hurt people loved, stretching carefully just to see how far their damaged muscles could go.”
And this is the hard part of the story. This is the hard part of love. Is the love any less true when it’s forbidden? Are the people any less good after they commit something bad? Is Luke that ain’t-shit man and is Nadia that homewrecking girl? I think they’re something more, just as Aubrey is something more than the naive innocent Christian (Bennett makes this especially clear in her continued correspondence and one-time date with Miller, the boy from the beach, who Aubrey arguably has more intimate conversations with than her husband).
Nadia begins offering rides to the mothers of Upper Room, doing her part for the community. And the mothers, of course, begin talking. They watch Aubrey- “She may hear this story, someday, and wonder what it has to do with her. A girl hiding her scared in her prettiness, an unwanted baby, a dead mother. These are not her heartbreaks. Every heart is fractured differently and she knows the pattern of her cracks, she traces them like lines across her palm. She has a living mother and besides, she was always wanted. But she hasn’t yet learned the mathematics of grief. The weight of what has been lost is always heavier than what remains.”
We see Aubrey trying to seduce Luke, attempting lingerie and wine for the first time in their marriage. And we see him angry with her because of her lunch date with Miller, the two launching into an argument that ends with a significant punch: Aubrey knows Nadia is the one who’d had Luke’s baby aborted, and she’s the one he still wants even now.
The mothers report to their audience that Aubrey is rumored to have moved out of her and Luke’s place after the blowout. Nadia reflects on her confrontation with Aubrey, who simply asked her friend how. “The how of any betrayal was the hardest part to justify, how the lies could be assembled and stacked and maintained until the truth was completely hidden behind them.” Aubrey ignores Nadia despite how often and in how many different ways she attempts to apologize. Nadia learns from Mrs. Sheppard that Aubrey is pregnant. And we get Aubrey’s voice too- “a cord stretched from her to her baby girl, but she wondered if, along with food and nutrients, she was sending other things to her child. If a baby could feed off her sadness. Maybe that cord never broke. Maybe she was still feeding off her mother.” Aubrey eventually sees Luke, eventually reads Nadia’s apologies. They end their affair. The mothers talk.
Nadia’s father discovers Nadia’s baby pin, the one remnant from her abortion, and confronts the Sheppards. “Didn’t he know by now that you could never truly know another person?” Nadia packs her bags over this disagreement and fracture with her father, and has one last goodbye with Aubrey- “magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.” “Inside of her was a whole new person, which was as miraculous as it was terrifying. Who would you be when you weren’t just you anymore?”
The last chapter of the novel switches again to the first person plural Mothers. They say they’ve seen Nadia once more (at least they think they have) bringing toys to Aubrey and Luke’s child. “We imagined her walking up the steps with the present and kneeling in front of the girl, a girl who wouldn’t exist if her own child did. Then she disappeared around the corner, and as quickly as we’d seen her, she was gone.”
And the punching ending-
“We will never know why she returned, but we still think about her. We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out. She’s her mother’s age now. Double her age. Our age. You’re our mother. We’re climbing inside of you.”
Wow. What does it mean to be a mother? To be a mother to someone who doesn’t exist? To be a mother to the byproduct of hurt and lies? To be a communal mother, the We?