When you’re caring for a baby or toddler in a public place, you will inevitably encounter the kind of person I call a sidewalk superintendent. This self-deputized authority will inform you that your charge needs a hat or a coat — or that he or she is overheated, understimulated, hungry, tired, too young for a pacifier, too old for a bottle or just plain miserable. The advice varies from expert to expert; all of them have their own bugaboos (and I’m not referring to the stroller brand). By the time I had my third baby, I’d road-tested and perfected the best response to these advice-giving strangers: “Oh.” A raised eyebrow also does the trick.
Jessamine Chan’s infuriatingly timely debut novel, THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS (Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $27), takes this widely accepted armchair quarterbacking of motherhood and ratchets it up to the level of a surveillance state — one that may read more like a preview than a dystopia, depending on your faith in the future of Roe v. Wade.
The nightmare begins when Freya Liu, an overwhelmed single mother, leaves her toddler, Harriet, home alone while she rushes to her office to collect something she forgot. It’s a split-second decision that sets off a chain reaction so catastrophic, I kept referring back to her “one very bad day,” as she calls it, to make sure I hadn’t missed a heinous crime that justifies the consequences.
Freya is court-ordered to leave Harriet in the care of her ex-husband (my sole complaint about this book: I wanted to know why his name is Gust) and his much younger girlfriend. Then she is sentenced to a prisonlike rehabilitation program where she must complete nine units of study — Fundamentals of Care and Nurture, Dangers Inside and Outside the Home, the Moral Universe and so forth — and pass a series of tests or risk having her parental rights permanently revoked. She is allowed to speak to Harriet at ever-dwindling intervals, missing her daughter’s birthday and first day of school and all the milestones in between. She must practice her new skills on a robot doll. Again and again, Freya and her fellow inmates are forced to repeat a mantra: “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”
Chan’s setup is so chilling, she probably could have pulled off a solid novel without spreading a lick of mortar between the bricks of her story. Instead, she adds clever touches to an extent that this book could be used as a blueprint for a world run by passive-aggressive sadists. Freya’s “school” is on the grounds of an old liberal arts college, “one of the many that went bankrupt in the last decade.” Her “counselor” (picture Figueroa in “Orange Is the New Black”) operates out of an old study abroad office; robot dolls have their fake blood replenished in the former center for civic and social responsibility. Eventually the bad mothers meet the bad fathers, who are being held in an old hospital with fewer rules and generous phone privileges. When it comes to robot care, less is expected of the dads.