On Loving Soft: Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers”

The Mothers broke my heart.

It’s the kind of book whose characters are so real that they keep walking around your head for a long time after you’ve finished. I loved all of them, and my heart broke for all of them, the troubled, grieving, brilliant Nadia, the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard who gets her pregnant, and the damaged, tightly wound, loving Aubrey Evans. We meet them all the summer that Nadia’s mother dies, and we follow them through their own eyes and the eyes of their African American church community mothers.

I loved how the book dealt with race as well – matter-of-factly. Mothering, fathering a black daughter, a black son, and the lessons you teach them to survive in a white America. The community expectations are different for black children.

The title is “The Mothers”, and there is much delicate exploration about mothers – the loss of simply being born, the inexplicability of never quite knowing the person who is “your first home”, the way we pass on knowledge and the way we know things about heartbreak and loss and love and can only watch helplessly as those we mother have to learn those things themselves.

But equally poignant are the parts about fathers, the way that they are excluded from this delicate relationship that mothers have with their children. Luke in particular struggles with Nadia’s abortion, and Nadia’s relationship with her father, the returned army veteran and the way he is so determined to forge a relationship with her, but never knows how, is one of the most painful, lovely parts of the novel.

The novel is also a lovely meditation on the ways that we feel pain – and the ways it does and doesn’t manifest in our bodies. How pregnancy changes you and makes of the private a public thing, and how sometimes your body never changes at all when you’ve suffered an emotional hurt, and how pain itself changes you. For the better, if you let it.

Ultimately though, this novel is about love – the way that we yearn for it from our parents, our boyfriends, our girlfriends, our friends, our spouses and lovers. And the heartbreaking thing about this novel is how each character fumbles their way through loving, not knowing quite how to express love healthily and well. There’s so much love in this novel, and all of it is broken, and breaks. Two people can love each other and still never know how much they are loved.

I feel like I wish I was friends with all these people so I could tell them to LEARN TO COMMUNICATE BETTER. But as is so often the case even in real life, I could only watch as they all broke themselves against the tide of loving.

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This is not a novel to be read while getting your hair done, unless you want to sniffle over your hairdresser like I did.

I highlighted a lot of tender prose in this novel, but this spoke to me.

“See, that’s the problem with colored girls these days. They too hard. Soft things can take a beating. But you push somethin’ hard a little bit and it shatters. You gotta be a soft thing in love. Hard love don’t last.”

To end with, here’s a great interview with the author, Brit Bennett.

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