For a slow character study, for a creepily realistic look at how things can suddenly yet subtly cross the line, for a book that’s like the opposite of The Farm
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.
This book is somewhat outside my usual preference of magic and action and saving-the-world kinds of issues. Frida is just looking to save her own little world, and maybe that of her daughter’s, Harriet. And yet, despite this being a more literary style, which I usually struggle with, this kept me 100% engaged. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. And I finished it in two days.
The pull of this one is almost voyeuristic, because I watched Frida slowly and undeniably lose herself through her time in the school. Her thoughts are mine to know, and I end up having more insight than even the all-seeing monitors who judge her emotions via endless camera footage. Hearing their diagnoses of some mothers in the program as not having enough love in their hugs, based on the biometric feedback, or that they should be able to physically heal illness with just their motherly love, was so genuinely unsettling to read that I kind of shudder again just thinking about it.
This book is more about the people in it than the plot driving them all. Of course there’s a clear goal: get their children back and prove they are good mothers. But what I got as a reader was a personal view of their deterioration to the exact opposite of what the school was supposed to do. That’s what kept me thinking about it and coming back to it.
They got in my head. I kept wondering what I would do in a situation, what I should do in that situation. The pain Frida feels by the end felt like my own, having seen the growth and degradation from it all. The end was a fascinating choice, and yes, I’m still thinking about it. Most unsettling of all is that in some ways, perhaps Frida is truly a better mother by the end due to the school.
One masterful integration was the comparison to the fathers’ school. The fathers are treated relatively humanely, promises are upheld, they get second chances. Once you’ve almost settled into the new normal of how the mother’s school work, it serves as a cold reminder that this is not normal. That more than anything probably stoked the fury, and made me rage a bit wondering WHY?? Why are the women treated like this? Why do mothers so often take the brunt of everything?
While the plot is certainly different than 1984, the feeling felt quite similar. The ever watchfulness, the intrusion that controls a persons speech and actions and eventually their mind. I feel like it’s a bold thing to compare a book to such a giant, but it feels accurate for this one. The other book that I feel is a perfect counterpart to this is The Farm. This book is about bad mothers who need to be retrained, and The Farm takes a look at just using surrogate mothers instead. If you like one, you’ll probably like the other.
Thanks to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review!