Review: The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Title: The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Dystopian, Fiction
Length: 335 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss


In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.


The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan is a deeply unsettling dystopian novel that is completely enthralling.

Thirty-nine-year-old Frida Liu is divorced and overwhelmed with caring for her eighteen-month-old daughter Harriet. She is bitter about her ex-husband Gust and his girlfriend Susanna’s new relationship. Frida is also very resentful that Susanna is caring for Harriet and steamrolling over her with parenting decisions. Frida is fortunate to have a job that allows her to work from part of the week but she is exhausted as she tries to juggle working at home with Harriet by her side. After a sleepless night due to Harriet being ill, Frida makes a fateful decision that puts her parenting under intense scrutiny by social workers. Now trapped in an exacting bureaucracy that deems her an unfit parent, Frida is ordered to go to a year long school that will teach her how to be a  mother. If she and the other moms in the school fail, their parental rights will be forever terminated.

Frida is ill-prepared for motherhood but she loves Harriet. With her entire life upended by Gust’s infidelity and their subsequent divorce, she feels like a failure and struggles to fit into this new life. Frida is the only child of parents who immigrated from China and her relationship with her mother is fraught.  The weight of expectation weighs her down and Frida feels helpless as she tries to adjust to her new reality as a divorced mom.

Her thoughtless decision endangers Harriet and although remorseful, Frida is caught in a new system that judges mothers harshly for their “misdeeds”. The school for “bad” mothers is unrelenting and allows no room for error as she and the other mothers try to learn how to parent under the watchful eyes of those in charge. Infractions of arbitrary rules affect their chances of getting their children back. And the strict protocols and high parenting expectations seem almost impossible to reach. With the goalposts forever changing and the threat of losing their phone privileges, Frida and the other women fear their chances of regaining custody are constantly slipping away.

The School for Good Mothers is a captivating dystopian novel that is emotionally compelling. Despite her careless decision, Frida is a sympathetic woman who is determined to beat the difficult odds of regaining custody. Her time at the school is pure torture as is the lack of contact with Harriet. Her fear of her losing her parental rights is never far from her mind and she works tirelessly to prove herself a worthy mother. The end of the year at the school is both highly anticipated and greatly dreaded and after her release, she anxiously awaits the judge’s decision.  Jessamine Chan shines a harsh light on unrealistic societal expectations of mothers and how easy it is to falter under the close scrutiny of an often unforgiving system.

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