By Angelina Eimannsberger
*Please note that this essay references major developments of The Mothers’ plot in its discussion of complicated heroines. Please read the novel, if you haven’t already, and then come back to this essay so we wont spoil your experience of plot and character development*
The main character of Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, Nadia Turner is a complicated heroine who stands out in the contemporary landscape of story-telling about women. She falls off the track of a successful coming-of age narrative in response to family trouble, romantic entanglements, and a general lack of ability to fend for herself.
Bennett’s novel asks difficult questions about a woman’s right to her body, when it comes to abortion and suicide, about fragile masculinity in the face of physical and emotional injury, about motherhood, and about race and how it is made legible in storytelling. All of this is fascinating, and makes The Mothers a strong debut novel.
Nadia shows us that growing up to be a liberated, happy woman is a complicated process. She doesn’t grow up either as a “good girl” having to overcome temptation to fulfill the expectations of her family and community. Neither is she a “rebel” who consciously break with tradition to make their own lives. Instead, Nadia is dealt a mixed hand and plays her way through the game, without redemption or destruction as we might expect from canonic stories such as The Bible, The Scarlett Letter, or Pride & Prejudice. This makes her a troubling, and fascinating, heroine.
Nadia’s friendship with Aubrey, a fellow summer worker at the local church and another disturbed girl, seems to be Nadia’s redemptive side. If Nadia has this one human skill, if she can be a good girlfriend, it might appear to the reader that the “good girl” might just be hidden underneath the surface and simply needs to be set straight. Bennet does not allow for such a simple unfolding of the story, however. The story does not let Nadia be contained by the myth of the “good girl,” or any other myth. Rather, things keep getting more complicated.
A few years after Nadia leaves home to attend university, her father has an accident while lifting weights. She returns to Oceanside for a few months to take care of him. Luke is now married to Aubrey, who is trying hard to become pregnant. Nadia begins another secret relationship with him. They reconnect because, due to his own health issues, Luke has taken up caring for sick people in his father’s congregation, and comes to visit Nadia’s father in this capacity.
Eventually, Aubrey finds herself pregnant, after she drank herself into the courage of sleeping again with her husband, a distracted, lying, Luke. Soon after, she finds out about the affair with Nadia and separates from Luke, staying with her sister and sister-in-law instead. When Aubrey sees Luke again,
She felt his eyes slide over her body, her swelling stomach, the ugly maternity sweatpants, and he seemed to marvel at the sight. Maybe she wasn’t as beautiful as Nadia, as brave, as smart–but she was the mother of his child. She and Nadia lived forever tilting the floor between love and envy, and she finally felt that floor tilt until she could stand, She was birthing the kept child. She had something Nadia never would, and for the first time, she felt triumphant over Nadia Turner. (257)
This scene provides an ugly picture of Aubrey, who seemed nicer and better, if less ambitious and smart, than Nadia. While Luke still marvels at her pregnant body, the reader can see in Aubrey’s mind that she is far from a glowing, serene state of transcendence. For Audrey and Nadia, this crisis of the affair and the pregnancy, both new variations on earlier events but with the addition of Aubrey’s participation, highlights the complexities of their bodies, their friendships, their loves, and their understanding of themselves.
Women’s bodies and their right to determine their own fate is a hot topic of feminist debate–from funding for Planned Parenthood to paid leave for motherhood to prizes of menstrual products–and Bennett’s story is an intensive, dark, but light-handed story about the very real consequences of these questions. Her brilliant, sophisticated story-telling does not need a dramatic closure because there is no end in sight for women’s struggles to be liberated and equal. Complicated heroines have a lot to teach us on how we can accept ourselves in the process and challenges of this society and this struggle.