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In ‘The School for Good Mothers,’ parental mistakes have terrifying consequences

Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, “The School for Good Mothers,” begins with insomniac Frida Liu living through a nightmare after leaving her 18-month-old daughter, Harriet, at home alone, confined in a toddler activity center. Frida knew it was irresponsible and had only meant to get coffee, swing by the office, and then come right back, but once at work she started answering emails and lost track of time. A neighbor heard the baby crying and called the cops, and now Harriet has been taken away. “Ms. Liu,” the social worker tells Frida when they meet at the police station, “this was an emergency removal because of imminent danger. You left your daughter unsupervised.” In the space of two hours, Frida has gone from being an overwhelmed, recently divorced mom who needed a moment to herself to being a government-certified danger to her child.

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Every person in a position of power from this point forward judges Frida as neglectful and incompetent, undeserving of her child. Frida’s ex-husband, Gust, who left her for a younger woman soon after their daughter’s birth, takes Harriet, and Frida’s home is wired with cameras so that Child Protective Services can observe her every move and decide whether she should get her child back. Her visits with Harriet are supervised by a social worker who menacingly films their encounters. Eventually, at court, a judge informs Frida that she’s being sent to a new rehabilitation program that sounds a lot like a reeducation camp, because that is essentially what it is.

This apparent school for good mothers is set up on the campus of a shuttered private liberal arts college that ran out of funding. This detail and others peppered throughout the book point toward a very near future with slightly upgraded technology, slightly worse climate disasters and slightly more draconian surveillance measures than we currently have. The book doesn’t feel speculative so much as inevitable, which is all the more horrifying.

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In fact, although the book isn’t billed as a horror novel, I felt consistently spooked while reading, disturbed but propelled on by Chan’s excellent pacing. The mothers sent to the facility are soon paired with startlingly realistic (and more or less anatomically correct) robot dolls. Each one is designed to vaguely resemble and developmentally mimic the actual child the mother harmed or neglected before being sent here. The instructors explain that in addition to “their role as proxy children, the dolls will collect data. They’ll gauge the mothers’ love. The mothers’ heart rates will be monitored to judge anger. Their blinking patterns and expressions will be monitored to detect stress, fear, ingratitude, deception, boredom, ambivalence, and a host of other feelings, including whether her happiness mirrors her doll’s.” The mothers practice with the dolls every day in a series of educational units (“Fundamentals of Care and Nurture”; “Intermediate and Advanced Play”) followed by timed practical exams.

Anyone who has children — or, indeed, has ever met a child or been a child — knows that real children are not consistently predictable, that there is no one-size-fits-all parenting technique. Yet the school teaches mothering as if it’s just another aspect of capitalist work culture, an optimizable skill to be perfected, complete with its own jargon like “hug sequence.” There’s a “Leave It to Beaver” and “Stepford Wives” flavor to the lessons as well, since they require the mothers to be available to their children at all times and project consistent happiness and calm.

The novel’s conceit is certainly a major part of the hype surrounding it (there is already a series adaptation in the works and it’s a “Today” show book club pick), with Chan detailing absurdities that might be funny if they weren’t so distressingly close to the real-life expectations our culture and institutions have of mothers. But Frida’s personal journey captivated me far more than the sometimes-familiar dystopian elements. She’s a complex character, keenly aware of the racial and gendered dynamics of the group of women she’s with (she’s the only Asian person in the facility), as well as the terrible injustice of the situation they’re all in. But, incarcerated as she is, her behaviors monitored, she chooses most often to keep her head down and try her best to play by the rules. What else can she do?

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“The School for Good Mothers” has drawn comparisons to “The Handmaid’s Tale, but where Gilead’s extremely rigid social structure might seem horrifyingly unrecognizable, Chan’s setting is far too close for comfort. Parents accused by CPS of abuse or neglect already face uphill battles to get their children back, and poor parents and Black parents are disproportionately targeted for investigations. It’s easy to judge — and readers may be understandably disturbed by the behavior of some housed at the facility — but Chan’s debut shines a light on its mothers’ humanity, mistakes and all.

Ilana Masad is a critic and the author of “All My Mother’s Lovers.”

The School for Good Mothers

By Jessamine Chan

Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $27

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