There’s not particularly a lot new about the story Bennett tells in her debut novel, but the sensitivity and beauty of her prose elevates things quite a bit, while also occasionally providing some problematic elements. Set in a world of affluent African-Americans and the church they frequent, the story is pretty simple. When the pastor’s son impregnates a girl from the church, there’s really only one option if scandal is to be avoided: termination of the pregnancy. But the ripples from this event will spread across the years. Bennett sketches her characters brilliantly. Nadia, the girl who has the abortion, is a complicated, often frustrating character. Luke, the pastor’s son, is a young man dealing with his own demons, robbed of purpose when an injury sidelines his sports career, casting about for any kind of redemption he can find. Aubrey, the third major character, is a friend to Nadia and eventual girlfriend of Luke, and Bennett has here created something even more incredible: a clear-eyed, but empathetic portrayal of a good Christian girl that feels absolutely real and true. Bennett tries something interesting with the prose; she often writes in the first person PLURAL, as “the mothers,” a group of old women from the church who bring their own feelings to the narrative as it unfolds. It’s an interesting idea and it’s incredibly rare to see someone attempt that voice, so it’s initially kind of exciting, but the reason no one tries to write in that voice is because it’s super hard and the sections narrated by the mothers become less and less compelling until they finally close the book on a very disappointing section. But the book is never less than thought-provoking and most often beautiful and emotionally moving. Even the flaws of the book are interesting and inspire the reader to thinking deeper about the book and about the characters. It isn’t a perfect book, but in some strange ways, the imperfections just complicate things in a good way and add to the book’s greatness. It’s a sometimes challenging read, but it’s infinitely rewarding and a powerful calling card from Bennett. 4 stars.
tl;dr – debut novel has some stylistic hiccups, but it’s mostly beautifully, empathetically written with characters that feel absolutely real and a serious emotional depth. 4 stars.