“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them.” The women of Upper Room Chapel church are no strangers to the whispers of affairs and other marital transgressions, or the daily minutiae of small sins and minor depravities congregates commit. Like mothers they watch over their congregation and the town of Oceanside, passing secrets around like candies worried in the mouth while they watch, breaking down their flavor profiles and sussing out every ingredient. Debut novelist Brit Bennet bravely explores race and racism, reproductive rights, and the hypocrisies within both love and organized religion in this coming-of-age novel.
In her senior year of high school, 17-year-old Nadia Turner carries a secret in her belly, sour tasting and unexpected. Recently motherless, unmoored by grief, Nadia takes up with the son of the pastor at her father’s church, Upper Room Chapel. Shortly into their affair she finds herself alone in a clinic waiting room, frightened but determined. She leaves emptied of her secret, but still posessing a piece of it, a small gold pin in the shape of an 8-week-old baby’s feet
Nadia doesn’t have to punch herself repeatedly in the stomach, or throw herself down stairs. She doesn’t have to jump in icy water, or douche with Coca-cola or Lysol. She never has to consider the merits of a coat hanger versus a knitting needle. Thanks to Roe v. Wade and Sarah Weddington, who successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the impacts of pregnancy were so fundamental that a woman should be allowed to decide whether to continue with a pregnancy, Nadia has a choice. A difficult choice, one with ramifications that follow her for the rest of her life, but a choice nonetheless.
Abortion is not an area fiction often treads. This novel doesn’t explore the morality of abortion as much as the psychological and emotional impacts on the adult psyches of Nadia and Luke; in this story abortion is not a political or religious platform. In another brave move, Bennet explores not just the procedure’s impact on Nadia, but on Luke as well. Without passing judgment, Bennet manages to convey how decisions made in youth shape our adult selves.
The church mothers tell Nadia’s story, their voices blending into both a benevolent and malevolent narrator. If she’d asked, we could’ve warned her to stay away, they bemoan. They click their tongues over the pastor’s children, reefer-smoking ruffians raised too close to an idea of a God to really see one. The mothers pray on Sundays and Wednesdays, gathered together in a circle, pulling request cards for jobs, homes, good health, loving relationships, “more faith, more patience, less temptation.”
Most of the mothers remain unnamed, unknown. Yet we know them, these women of the church. They are mothers and grandmothers. They teach piano to the neighborhood children. Mother Hattie brought macaroni and cheese for the Turners while they grieved. Mother Agnes made the apple pie with the unnervingly straight lattice. These are women who understand the healing power of food, and the meaning of community. These are women who want children to grow up and succeed, yet expect them not to. These are women who understand “the mathematics of grief,” and how “the weight of what has been lost is always heavier than what remains.”
Nadia has lost so much, and along with the weight of loss she must also bear the brunt of world largely carrying implicit biases against her. Good grades aren’t enough, nor is always being the smart one. When she sits in that waiting room Nadia feels “there was nothing special about a girl like this–not her good grades, not her prettiness. She was just another black girl who’d found herself in trouble.” The surprise on the blonde twenty-something clinic volunteer’s face when she learns of Nadia’s acceptance to the University of Michigan is something Nadia always has to battle—the blonde can be a womens studies major and still expect to be taken seriously, Nadia realizes. Nadia has had to fight to be taken seriously her entire life.
Another word for implicit is subtle, and subtle racism is the worst, Nadia explains, because you are always wondering if something is real, or only imagined: the look that quickly passes over the clinic volunteer’s face, longer waits for tables in restaurants, white girls expecting Nadia to walk on the slushy part of the sidewalk, a drunk guy slurring you’re pretty, for a black girl. Nadia’s white classmates tout their university’s diversity and progressiveness, but Nadia’s experience does not mirror theirs.
The world is a diverse place; however, humans are not as progressive or accepting as many would like to think. Right now, many Americans feel like their lives don’t matter, and that is simply not acceptable. Bennet’s novel draws awareness towards the need to collectively acknowledge implicit bias, and to start examining and eliminating the ways subtle racism has made spaces in our homes and lives. This is a brave, beautiful, and heartbreaking debut, one that leaves readers forever altered. The lives of Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey (who loved them both, to her detriment), will never lose their luster, or their power to both instruct and heal.