Not without ceasing, as Paul instructs, but often enough. On Sundays and Wednesdays, we gather in the prayer room and slip off jackets, leave shoes at the door and walk around in stocking feet, sliding a little like girls playing on waxed floors, We sit in a ring of white chairs in the center of the room and one of us reaching into the wooden box by the door stuffed with prayer request cards. Then we pray: for Earl Vernon, who wants his crackhead daughter to come home; Cindy Harris’s husband, who is leaving her because he’d caught her sending nasty photographs to her boss; Tracy Robinson, who has taken to drinking again, hard liquor at that; Saul Young, who is struggling to help his wife through the final days of her dementia. We read the request cards and we pray, for new jobs, new houses, new husband, better health, better-behaved children, more faith, more patience, less temptation.
The Mothers who narrate this debut novel by Brit Bennett are the church mothers at the Upper Room chapel in Oceanside, California. These mothers observe and pray and, for the purposes of the novel, act as a sort of Greek chorus as they observe the lives of three young people making the transition into adulthood.
Nadia Turner is 17, and her mother, who had Nadia at 17, has just committed suicide. Dazed and grieving, Nadia drinks and parties and eventually hooks up with Luke Sheppard. Nadia was supposed to be the first in her family to go to college, but then she becomes pregnant and fears ending up as unhappy as her mother.
Luke, 21, is the pastor’s son and a former football star. He now waits tables at a local fast food and is known to be kind of wild. As the Mothers observe, “You know what they say about pastors’ kids.”
And then there’s Aubrey Evans, also 17, and the perfect good girl type. She also has no mother, but that’s because she left, moving in with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend. Aubrey came to the Upper Room all on her own and has made herself part of the community, her purity ring signifying her commitment to staying “good.” She doesn’t tell anyone why this commitment is so important to her.
The novel follows these three young black people as they draw close to each other and drift apart and back again. The writing is wonderful, and I fell right into the novel in a way that is rare for me these days. I cared deeply for these characters, worrying over their mistakes and hoping they’d find their right paths, even when it wasn’t clear to me exactly what that path should be. I also appreciate that this is a book all about black lives without being a book all about race. We need more stories like this.
As much as I loved this book, I admit that the characters tend to be types, but they felt like real, flesh-and-blood examples of those types. The book employs a lot of common tropes, but Bennett does it so elegantly that I didn’t care. It’s a good story, well-told, even if it’s familiar.
And then there’s the ending, where Bennett subverts the Greek chorus narration just enough that I’m tempted to say it’s a twist, but that might leave you expecting too much. These women with their prayers turn out to be not just observers, but actors. It’s quite ingenious and left me even more satisfied with a book that I already thoroughly enjoyed.