Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers is not a great book. I don’t mean that in the sense the writer Judith Newman did when she wrote in the New York Times Book Review one Mother’s Day: “No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood.”1 Rather, I simply mean The School for Good Mothers isn’t great literature. I doubt it aspires to be. What it aspires to be, I suspect, is a good yarn, a page-turner, a bestseller. On that front, it succeeds, including by making several best-books-of-the-year lists.2 It is unsurprising that critics have compared it to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,3 a book published in 1985 but enjoying a resurgence due to the Emmy-winning series starring Elisabeth Moss.4 Nor is it surprising that there is already a TV adaptation in the works.5 The School for Good Mothers is similarly dystopian, tapping into our anxiety and curiosity about artificial intelligence — think ChatGPT6 — and its ability to upend our lives, even making us superfluous.
However, because The School for Good Mothers is set in the near future, it manages to seem like a book of the moment, a frightening glimpse of what might be just around the corner. Indeed, the uncertainty about its temporal nearness only adds to the tension. A mother who abandons her child for a few hours and is required to successfully attend a school for good mothers to regain custody? It already seems very “now.” But as part of measuring her fitness to be a mother, she is assigned a robot doppelgänger of her child — one that is sentient, one that seems almost real, one that might even pass the Turing test, and one that she is required not only to care for but also to love. At the same time, the robot child is programmed to collect and record data from its assigned “mother,” including her heart rate, “her temperature and posture, how often she makes eye contact, the quality and authenticity of her emotions” (pp. 102–03). For those anxious about the policing of motherhood and the increasing role technology might play in that policing, for those worried about the end of privacy and Big Brother run amok, this book is for you.
But already I need to take a step back. In case it is not yet obvious, this is not a typical book review, at least not a typical book review for a law journal. For starters, The School for Good Mothers isn’t a law book, but rather a work of fiction, rarely the subject of reviews in law journals.7 Beyond that, The School for Good Mothers is not the kind of fiction that people probably think of when they think of “law and literature.” There is no courtroom scene or admirable lawyer, as in To Kill a Mockingbird8 or Native Son.9 There are no weighty questions about justice or natural law, as in Billy Budd10 or The Trial.11 Nor are there questions of legal interpretation, as in The Merchant of Venice,12 or about what it means to judge, as in The Children Act13 or A Jury of Her Peers.14
More typical of the type of book one might find reviewed in the pages of a law journal is Professor Dorothy Roberts’s most recent book, Torn Apart. Roberts teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania — coincidentally, the very university where the protagonist of The School for Good Mothers works (p. 4) — and for years has been writing about the regulation of families and its impact in particular on Black families.15 In doing so, Roberts has influenced an entire generation of younger scholars.16 She also adds context to the narrative at the heart of The School for Good Mothers. As such, one of the goals of this Review is to put these two books — a work of fiction and a work of nonfiction — in conversation with one another. Doing so points to where each book could have gone further and to questions left unanswered.
There is another reason to pair a book about the law with a work of fiction. Doing so reminds us that even works of fiction are, in a way, legal texts, existing inside the law. An analogy to the epiphany Toni Morrison had while reading literature might be useful:
It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl — the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles traveling to the surface — and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world.17
Morrison was referring to race,18 but the same can be said about law. And The School for Good Mothers, much like almost any work of fiction, is surrounded by law, whether it realizes it or not. In many respects, law is the fishbowl. It is the structure that permits “the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world.”19
This Review begins with The School for Good Mothers. Part I provides a précis of the novel and surfaces some of the law that structures The School for Good Mothers, and that polices so much of motherhood today. Part II turns to surveillance, since surveillance is at the heart of The School for Good Mothers. Part II argues that the novel also reveals a layer of the debate about surveillance and technology that too often goes unnoticed. Specifically, the novel exposes the many ways in which surveillance, even without technology, but with the imprimatur of the law, already permeates our lives. Indeed, given the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of Roe v. Wade20 and the right of women to be free from compulsory birth,21 it is difficult to read the novel without thinking about what Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization22 portends for the further surveillance of motherhood and reproductive freedom. Finally, Part III turns to yet another narrative that runs just below the surface of the novel: the role race plays in the policing of motherhood. In particular, Part III puts Roberts’s Torn Apart in conversation with Chan’s The School for Good Mothers. In this conversation, they each have much to say.
* Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Law and Director of the Center on Race, Law, and Justice, Fordham Law School. B.A. Princeton University; J.D. Columbia Law School. E-mail: [email protected]. A special thanks to Cynthia Godsoe and Clare Huntington for their many suggestions as I was writing this Review, and to Alafair Burke for encouraging me to write about law and literature again.