There is seemingly no grey area for black girls — they’re either “good” or “bad,” “fast” or “chaste,” “respectable” or “trifling.” In contemporary black America, the important task of ranking, filing and maintaining this social hierarchy is often left to the matriarchs — the tribunal of church mothers who have lived long enough to cross the moral threshold that deifies opinions and elevates judgments to discernment. By these standards, the mothers of the Upper Room church have full moral license to judge. The hints of good in a bad girl are easily dismissed as a chance fluke, and the bad in a good girl, eagerly overlooked and explained away. The reputations of both preassigned without permission and caste by a community insistent on self-marginalization.

In her debut novel, The Mothers, Brit Bennett collides the worlds of “good girls” and “bad” ones, church mothers and pastors kids, while tracing the lives and secrets of three characters from their teens into adulthood. Nadia Turner, a beautiful high-schooler, has every reason to be rebellious: A mother who recently committed suicide, a church community that prizes gossip over empathy and a father who is emotionally absent. Bennett juxtaposes Nadia’s response to the unexpected death of her mother to her father’s — “Her father propped his sadness on a pew, but she put her sad in places no one could see.”

One of those places would be Luke Sheppard, a handsome college athlete and beloved son of the pastor and first lady of the Upper Room. Home for the summer, working at a local dive and recuperating from a college football injury, Luke is desultory. Bennett emphasizes his carefree disregard — “He wasn’t a bad kid but he was reckless. Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless…Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.” Luke’s carelessness and Nadia’s desperation to escape her pain result in a calamity so vile that Nadia dare not even share the secret with her virtuous best friend, Aubrey.

Bennett’s masterful first novel takes the reader on a multidimensional exploration of the things we desire and the things we settle for, what cements loyalties and what justifies betrayal. She brilliantly examines the complexities that mold individuals and shape families, giving an intimate peek into the motives of our longings. When it comes to neatly tying loose ends, in her signature pragmatic fashion, Bennett makes no such promise. The emphasis is on the intersection of lessons, not the outcome.

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