(2016) by Britt Bennett is a novel about a small, tight-knit Black community in Southern California, and the lasting impact of a secret on a grieving girl, her boyfriend, and her best friend. The main characters are 17-year-old Nadia, who is grieving her mother's recent suicide; Luke, the son of a pastor and football star who was recently taken out of the game because of a serious injury, and Aubrey, who falls into her religion to avoid the horrors enacted by her abusive stepfather. When Nadia becomes pregnant with Luke's baby, the community is wracked by the secret, and Nadia cannot escape it, even after years trying to hide on the other side of the country.
The novel has two main components: the stories of Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, and a chorus of voices, “the Mothers,” opinionated churchgoers who gossip, reflecting on the state of the small-town community where the story takes place. The Mothers offer a more theoretical element to the story, voicing their opinions on the facets of a “good” or “proper” black girl, what women can and cannot do with their bodies, and what it means to be god-fearing in the modern world.
Seventeen-year-old Nadia has made a reputation for herself in town after the death of her mother by suicide six months before the story takes place. Nadia lives with her father, a Marine, and is avidly exploring her sexuality, partying, and dreaming of her college education and life beyond it, which would transport her away from her pain and her motherlessness.
Nadia is best friends with Aubrey, a timid, plain, and righteous girl who focuses primarily on the church and her family. Aubrey's life, though it looks god-fearing and perfect, is plagued by abuse—her stepfather abuses her and her mother. As a result, both Nadia and Aubrey feel lost and parentless, finding some solace in each other as they struggle to come of age in their small town.
Nadia soon finds herself romantically involved with Luke, the pastor's son. Their romance is opposed by many of the Mothers, who see Nadia as a troubled harlot and Luke as a damaged boy with something to prove. Luke, once a star football player, was forced to end his career when an injury pulled him out of the game, leaving him working at the local diner. With his dreams crushed, Luke, unsure what to do with himself, falls into a whirlwind romance with Nadia.
Soon, Nadia discovers that her romance has lasting repercussions; she is pregnant. Nadia has always been passionate about education, and she doesn't want a baby to stop her from achieving her dreams. She makes the controversial decision to have an abortion, and her secret becomes a defining factor in her hometown's view of her, even after she leaves. To escape the scrutiny, she soon departs for college on the other side of the country, hoping to put it all behind her.
However, Nadia soon finds that even while she is away, life continues without her back in California. Her father is injured, and Nadia returns to care for him a few years after college, only to find that she still has a lot of loose threads to tie up back home.
A graduate of the University of Michigan Helen Zell Program for Writers, The Mothers
is Bennett’s debut novel. She has received a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction and a 2014 Hurston/Wright Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker
, The Paris Review
, and other esteemed literary magazines. Her second novel, The Vanishing Half
, which explores the racial identity of twins, is due out in 2020.