In a near-future America, "bad mothers" are sent for retraining at a government-run reform program, where they learn to be "good mothers" to robot children. This is where government officials send Frida Liu, a 39-year-old Chinese-American single mother in Philadelphia who has lost custody of her 18-month-old daughter Harriet after leaving her home alone for two hours on one very bad day.
The book doesn’t feel speculative so much as inevitable, which is all the more horrifying ... 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 ... absurdities...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 ... 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.
The 'wrongfully accused person' plot is terrifying because it dramatizes two extremely common scenarios: being misunderstood and being ignored ... The School for Good Mothers, is a crafty and spellbinding twist on this genre ... Chan’s novel is too original to come off as a purée of influences. She renders Frida’s cornered-animal consciousness in clipped and twitchy prose so effective that I had to pause every few pages to unclench my fists ... Chan’s ideas are livid, but her prose is cool in temperature, and the effect is of an extended-release drug that doesn’t peak until long after you’ve swallowed it. One test of speculative fiction is whether or not it gives you nightmares, and when mine came — I knew they would — it was a full week after I’d finished this time bomb of a book.
... [an] excellent, provocative debut novel ... It’s tempting to slot The School for Good Mothers into sci-fi—robot children! state surveillance!—but as the book continues, and as it becomes clearer that success in the school is close to impossible, I couldn’t help wondering if those more explicitly dystopian details were even necessary. At times I found myself sidetracked by the logistics of the AI dolls, and their existence opened big questions about consciousness and humanity that linger. They function ultimately as tools of discomfort, which is where Chan really shines. In a book full of characters obsessed with the idea of who is and who isn’t a good mother, Chan is sure-footed in her ambivalence, never allowing the reader to get too comfortable in a clear answer ... Chan smartly places Frida’s bad judgment just past relatability: Frida leaves her toddler home alone for two and a half hours. Indeed, Harriet could have died. Frida knows this, and we know this, but as we get to know Frida and inevitably empathize with her, the nagging fear shifts. The scariest thing about The School for Good Mothers isn’t that government overreach could allow the state to terminate parental rights based on one mistake; it’s that your worst mistake could turn out to be something you’d never think you were capable of.