Oak Park’s Jessamine Chan invented ‘The School for Good Mothers’ — a little too disturbingly close to true

·9 min read

Here’s a nice story about a sad story.

It starts with Jessamine Chan, who moved back to Oak Park last summer.

She had grown up there, and now she was in her 40s, renting half of a suburban two-flat. Life had not gone the way she anticipated. It had gone much better. She returned to be closer to her parents, she had a 4-year old daughter, she was married, and though she told few people, she had big prospects ahead. Her first novel, a vaguely dystopian gut wrencher named “The School for Good Mothers,” had been buzzed about for months, and already the Today Show’s winter pick for its lucrative Read With Jenna book club. Last week when the novel was published, Simon & Schuster sprung for a pricey, full double-page ad in the New York Times Book Review. “School for Good Mothers” was being called a spiritual successor to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Jessica Chastain bought the rights, to adapt it into a TV series. Chan was named an executive producer. Some even started asking if she was working on the sequel.

How’s your 2022 going?

As a child in Oak Park, Chan hoped for a measure of fame. Just not this kind. She wanted to be stage actor. She performed in suburban community productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” she played the mom in “Bye Bye, Birdie,” she was Sarah Brown in “Guys and Dolls.” The thing is, she readily admits, she was never that kid. She was the dutiful student who received certificates for perfect attendance. She was a good student who eventually attended Brown. She wanted to be a jazz-hands kid, “but I was never a jazz hands kind of person. I was also not tall or a good dancer.” Plus, as a first-generation daughter of Chinese immigrants — her mother is from Taiwan, her father mainland China — “the only parts for an Asian woman in the ‘90s seemed to be in ‘Miss Saigon,’ and at first, I did think, ‘OK, so I’ll go to theater school and aspire to be cast in “Miss Saigon.”’”

Later at Brown, where she became interested in writing, she assumed she would be a book editor. “The only Asian American writers I grew up with were Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, but they were giants, and so that didn’t seem viable, either. My parents were supportive, but for a while it never occurred to me that I could write those stories.”

She moved to New York and became an editor of nonfiction reviews for Publishers Weekly. She moved to Chicago and worked as editor of a research digest for University of Chicago’s graduate business school. But when the HR department at UC asked her where she expected to be in five years, she told them she wanted to be writing novels.

“Which is not the thing you say to HR.”

Chan, funny, affable, thoughtful, apologizes. The rest of her story is not exciting. She simply wrote short stories for herself, for years and years, and then one day — bingo.

“The School for Good Mothers” is so timely, compelling and rage-inducing, you can’t imagine a world where it is not a hit, passed among friends, even a cultural marker. It tells the story of Frida, a single mother who leaves her 18-month-old daughter alone for 90 minutes, runs an errand, stops at work to get papers; on the way home receives a phone call from the police: “We have your daughter.” A neighbor heard the girl crying and called, claiming an abandoned child. On the way to the police station, Frida reminds herself to breathe, Chan writes. She drives slowly, dazed. She recalls a frantic weekend and how her daughter, Harriet, had an ear infection. No one slept. “Frida did what she could,” Chan writes. “She sang lullabies, rubbed Harriet’s chest, gave her extra milk. She laid on the floor next to Harriet’s crib, held her impossibly perfect hand through the bars, kissed her knuckles, her fingernails.” At the station, Frida is guided into an interrogation and learns later that she has been offered — if that’s the proper word — a place in an experimental project, a school that measures the love and care of a mother. She will remain there for a year. If she succeeds, she keeps custody.

Chan calls it “dystopian minimalism,” in that the book is breezy and sparse, a quick read that rarely explains much. It’s hard to say exactly how far into the future, if at all, this is. But there are surrogate robot children for Frida to practice her parenting skills with, and endangerment laws seem overly harsh but also vague. The novel is wise this way. Once Frida moves into the good mothering school, I half-expected an oppressive Nurse Ratched character, a kind of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” story that asks who is more sane, the inmates or their keepers? But this is not so easy or obvious. Indeed, Chan was inspired more by Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let You Go” and its somewhat implacable tale of a boarding school where teenagers are groomed into becoming organ donors for the rich, after which they experience “completion,” or death.

“I’m not sure I could tell the whole plot to it,” she said, “but that mood? I still feel.”

You find yourself furious with the treatment and teachers at Frida’s school, debating points with the characters on the page, but it’s that kind of righteous, one-sided argument you only win alone, in a car or shower. You sound good to yourself, yet the world of “School for Good Mothers” is so hermetically Kafkaesque, there’s no arguing.

You can’t talk your way out of a culture.

“I wasn’t really thinking about big themes or issues when I started writing this,” she said. “Really I was just wrestling with parenting culture and simply becoming a mother.” Specifically, the ambivalence felt about motherhood stressed her out. She was in her mid-30s and says she and her husband went back and forth on whether to become parents. “I had it on the brain but I wasn’t ready, I was scared, I had to wait until I was more stable in my life, I had to wait until I had a book done. I would have waited until I was 52.” She said her husband would remind her of the melting of Greenland and the looming ramifications of climate change. Did they want to bring a child into that world?

Then she read Rachel Aviv’s 2013 New Yorker article about the nightmare tale of a California woman in 2005 who left her three-year old son alone for several hours; someone heard him calling for his mother and called police, who took the boy to a home for neglected children, which eventually placed him with a foster mother. The real mother — who grew up in Kuwait City and said the day that she left her son alone, she was being pressured by work, stressed by single-parenting, worried she was ruining her career as the leader of a small financial-operation team, doing too much with no help — pleaded for leniency. She was placed in a program that required her to prove that she was fit to stay a parent; if she failed she would be forced to put her son up for adoption.

“I felt this kernel of rage for the mother as I read that story,” Chan said. “It was so chilling, and the way the social workers and others talked of love and affection and care, it was as if they thought you could measure such a thing. The way they judged the mother felt subjective, colored by biases. I took those feelings and made them literal.”

Or rather, more literal.

After she had the idea, “in a trance” for hours, the details and framework spilling out, narrating a fantasy not at all that removed from the reality of many parents accused of neglect; it was a short story then, but later that year, at a writing conference, novelist Percival Everett read a draft and told her: “I don’t want to make your life bad, but you have a novel here.” Meaning, it was no short story. She still had years of writing ahead.

About five, actually.

She dove into articles about parents losing custody, the nuts and bolts of court-ordered parenting classes, the structure of foster care. She also had a daughter herself, “and then I realized I had to rewrite the whole thing.” Parenting taught her that, contrary to her first drafts, toddlers do not speak in long paragraphs of dialogue or even complete sentences. Also the lessons for parents in the book become more rudimentary. “I just didn’t know how hard it was to get a kid to listen to you, or put on a pair of shoes or even get out the door. But it made Frida a richer character in many ways, a more loving character. I also think it made me kinder to myself, because I had been writing about judgment and shame and since I had those feelings now, I judged myself a bit less.”

There will be no spoilers here, and yet, should a TV series get made, bring tissue.

Novels are optioned every day and never actually get made as movies or TV series, but odds are good for this one. A director is already attached — Jude Weng, of the Netflix film “Finding Ohana,” and keeping with the novel, Chan said Frida is already being developed with an Asian-American actress in mind. Plus, the book is timely, arriving in a country seemingly rolling back abortion laws, with a more conservative Supreme Court.

Chicago writer Kim Brooks — whose well-received 2018 book “Small Animals” was about the criminalization of motherhood, recounting her own rabbit-hole of problems after she left her four-year old in the car to play on his iPad while she ran into Target — has read Chan’s book and found it “imaginative, pretty great,” but “to read it as dystopian fiction? I found that strange, if only because I’ve done so much reporting on this subject, I’m aware of these very things happening, especially to poor women and women of color. It’s strange hearing it’s dystopian when actually, it’s so close to reality.”

Chan said the book does feel more realistic to her than when she began writing.

“I scaled back the world building and the justifications for certain acts because suddenly, certainly after Trump was elected, horrible, implausible things seemed to be happening every day to parents. That an institution like the School for Good Mothers might start, that you might see a dragnet draw people into an endless bureaucracy, it wasn’t crazy. This is being published at a bleak time. I couldn’t imagine how bad the world could get.

“My brain is as frazzled now as anyone’s. It’s going to take me a while to refill before I move on from this. Right now, January 2022, I’m just going to attention to my daughter.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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