“A mother is always patient. A mother is always kind. A mother is always giving. A mother never falls apart. A mother is the buffer between her child and the cruel world.” 

Courtesy of jessaminechan.com

The book’s premise is similar to that of the novel “1984,” except the evil government entity is Child Protective Services (CPS) instead of “Big Brother.” In the novel, CPS takes on an authoritarian nature, and reported  “bad parents” are taken to a year-long parenting boot camp. The curriculum of the training program consists of different parenting fundamentals, including care, play, safety and moral authority. The story follows one “bad mother” named Frida, who left her toddler alone at home for two hours after needing an escape to get coffee and work papers.

The dystopian genre is one of the best ways to understand potentially catastrophic downturns in society, and “The School for Good Mothers” does not disappoint in this respect. The idea of the government program is that by “fixing” parenting, the government can fix society. Chan asks readers to consider the truth of this statement in the age-old nature versus nurture debate. Can children grow up to be better than their parents? How much weight do negative childhood experiences carry in a child’s future development?

For her first novel, Chan demonstrates immense promise as a science fiction writer, and the world she builds is instantly believable. From the abandoned college campus used to host the camp to the lifelike child-robots used for training, she covers every base in creating a holistic picture. The characters are wide-ranging, and feature a teen mom accused of physical abuse and a middle-aged white woman accused of coddling her teenage son, among others.  Chan considers the dynamics of such a scenario from multiple angles, challenging readers to imagine what kinds of issues would arise in a school of heartbroken “bad” mothers and exploring conflicts concerning race, sexuality, child endangerment, family and mental health. 

Chan’s explorations of race are particularly poignant. Frida’s daughter is biracial, with a  white father and a Chinese mother, so  Frida worries that losing the chance to raise her child risks her daughter’s understanding of her Chinese heritage. In one training session, the instructors hardwire the robots (referred to as “dolls”) to call each other racial slurs so the mothers can correct their behavior and teach equality and “community values.” The potential problems of such a reductive solution to societal racism are not lost on readers.

Ultimately, “The School for Good Mothers” is a critique of the stigmas surrounding parenting, as well as a recognition of the hard work parenting entails. The novel is fast-paced, clever and disturbing and will have you pondering its themes for days.