Dystopia Is All Too Plausible in The School for Good Mothers

Jessamine Chan's new novel makes a world full of surveillance android children seem very real. 
Child peeking through white doors
Photograph: Suparerg Suksai/Getty Images

Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, The School for Good Mothers, is not a domestic manual on keeping house. Nor is it the sort of slog that might make tidying look like an appealing alternative. Yet as I read it over the course of one snowy evening, I repeatedly put it down to complete household tasks normally ignored until morning. Dishes gleamed. Pillows got fluffed. Every last sock met its match. This book is a horror story so potent it will fill even the most diligent parent with an itchy impulse to panic-clean, to straighten up, to act like someone’s watching.

As The School for Good Mothers opens, single mom Frida Liu is strung out from working full-time while simultaneously caring for her 18-month-old daughter, Harriet. When Harriet was a newborn, Frida’s husband left her for a much-younger pilates instructor. (His name is Gust. Like the wind.) Gust had convinced Frida to move to Philadelphia, where she has no family or support system. Now she feels stuck. In a moment of exhaustion, Frida makes a reckless choice: She abandons Harriet for an afternoon, the toddler marooned alone in a bouncer. While Frida drives off to get a takeout coffee and answer emails in her office, Harriet cries so loudly the neighbors hear. Authorities are summoned. Frida begs Child Protective Services for her daughter back, but Gust and his beau Susanna get poor Harriet. Frida is placed under constant surveillance by a snide government team set on exposing her parenting weaknesses. “This is how you show up for work?” a police officer sneers at her sloppy outfit. Frida gets knocked for not having enough friends, for having a bad attitude. Her lawyer explains that CPS has adopted a new, highly aggressive approach. She is given a choice to either permanently lose her daughter, or endure a year at a state-run reeducation camp for bad moms. Desperate to be reunited with Harriet, Frida chooses the school.

Located in a former liberal arts college, the school in question is a prison with a genteel facade, a leafy, open-concept Room 101. The mothers are forced to chant “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.” They are sorted into groups depending on their children’s age and gender, and matched with eerily lifelike robot children. The AI kiddies are equipped with cameras to record the mothers as they are given lessons on parenting. Instructors drill the women on what tone of voice to use, how many seconds to hug their kids. It is not enough to carry out the tasks required of them; they must do so while thinking the right thoughts and feeling the right feelings, too. “Data collected from the doll has suggested substantial amounts of anger and ingratitude,” Frida learns during a goal-setting session. The surveillance androids give the book its science fiction hook, but what they represent—the societal expectation that mothers be happy, damn it—is immediately recognizable, culled straight from the present day.

Racism and classism are baked into the program at Frida’s school; most of the prisoners are Black, poor, or both. Second-generation Frida, one of the few Asian Americans, is alternately judged for being too Chinese (a psychologist tries to get her to peg her parents as “withholding” because they weren’t as physically affectionate as American caregivers) and not Chinese enough (she’s not fluent in Mandarin). She is accused of “false tenderness” while gazing at her fake daughter’s crib. She is accused of having a “hostile” grip while she practices cutting food to cook family dinners. Cooking, the school insists, is one of the highest forms of love.

One of Chan’s canniest narrative moves is making Frida’s judgment just shaky enough to make you want to clasp her shoulders and gently tell her to get it together. Although she repeatedly tries to shrug the inciting incident off as “one really bad day,” Frida does walk out on her daughter for more than two and a half hours, a choice that does endanger Harriet. You get the sense that Frida might not have been terribly consumed by guilt if she’d gotten away with it and come home to a grumpy but unharmed child. She might have even done it again. (Even after getting found out, she remembers feeling a small thrill when she shut the door to leave her daughter.) At the school, she pinches her robot-kid’s arm in a moment of anger, and then walks right into a clear trap by starting up a flirtation with one of the men at the nearby school for bad fathers. She is not always the easiest person to sympathize with, which is, of course, the point. Frida’s flaws ask us to confront how easy it is to turn our noses up at a mom who sometimes gives in to her worst impulses, even if she is genuinely loving.

And, oh, Frida loves. She loves so much that she hopes against hope that she’ll get her daughter back. The School for Good Mothers is compared with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a blurb on its cover. The comparison is apt, albeit pat: They are both grim thrillers about future worlds where women are forcibly separated from their children. A diabolical state plan to safeguard children by controlling women propels both plots. Tonally, though, The School for Good Mothers reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s speculative fiction more than anything else. Like Ishiguro, Chan writes in measured, unshowy prose. And like Ishiguro, Chan has a fatalistic streak in her storytelling. “Frida could punch herself in the face for hoping,” Chan writes. And yet she does it anyway. Where does it get her? Just as the clones in Never Let Me Go cannot escape their dark fate but still spiritually chafe against it, Frida endures her reeducation by clinging to the idea that she will be able to escape a system rigged against her, and be reunited with her beloved. But the bar isn’t just raised for Frida and her cohort, it is slippery, designed to make them fall.

In interviews about the novel, Chan has cited the 2013 New Yorker article “Where Is Your Mother?” by Rachel Aviv as a source of inspiration. In it, Aviv follows a single mother named Niveen Ismail as she tries and fails to get her son back after losing custody following a single incident where she left him alone. After finishing Chan’s book, it is tempting to take solace in the fact that it’s a fictional tale, but Aviv’s article makes for an especially dispiriting companion piece. It is evidence that the circumstances portrayed by Chan may have some sci-fi flourishes (robot babies filled with sloshy blue goo) but it is a story fundamentally of this world, not some far-flung future. Ismail, who fights for her son for years, and who refuses to move away from their hometown even though his adoptive family gets a restraining order against her, is a loving mother who is punished less for her one error and more for who she is—an eccentric, an immigrant, a person possessing, according to the court psychologist, “certain problematic personality traits.” The fact that she didn’t carry a purse got put into her file. So did a time she offered her son too many toys. While Aviv’s account of Ismail’s ordeal is a gutting, in-depth exploration of governmental overreach and unnecessary family separation, it isn’t portraying something rare. Child-welfare agencies already admit to erring on the side of overreaction. They already often require mandatory parenting classes to maintain custody. They already take so many children away. And so calling The School for Good Mothers dystopian doesn’t feel quite right. Near-dystopian, maybe? Ever-so-slightly speculative? This closeness to reality is what turns the book’s emotional gut punch into a full knockout wallop. A mother reading it doesn’t close the book, sigh, and think, Thank god the world’s not really like this. No, she closes it and knows she must be very careful.

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