What happened when Nadia got pregnant?

The Mothers. Brit Bennett. Riverhead. 278 pages. $26.
The Mothers. Brit Bennett. Riverhead. 278 pages. $26.

The Mothers of Upper Room Chapel are worried about the future: “Anyone knows a church is only as good as its women, and when we all passed on to glory, who would hold this church up?” they demand, gazing with disapproval at the teenagers in their small Southern California congregation. Who will carry on? Not the “sullen and slow” boys, not the girls, who are “even worse.”

How can any community survive with such a disappointing legacy?

“The Mothers” is Brit Bennett’s first novel, and it’s a bracing, heartfelt debut about family, motherhood and friendship, grief and healing and how all of these elements and our own shaky decisions constantly reshape our lives. Chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honorees, Bennett uses a Greek chorus of church ladies to introduce a teenage girl who has lost her mother, the pastor’s son she loves and their badly kept secret that haunts the community — and the two of them — for years.

At 17, after the suicide of her mother, Nadia Turner falls for Luke Sheppard, who dropped out of college after a serious injury ended his football career. Nadia’s grieving father throws himself into work for the church; Nadia throws herself into Luke, hanging around Fat Charlie’s Seafood Shack, where he works. “She thought her advanced classes might scare Luke off, but he liked that she was smart. See this girl right here, he’d tell a passing waiter, first black lady president, just watch. Every black girl who was even slightly gifted was told this. But she liked listening to Luke brag. ...”

But Luke wants their relationship to be “private.” Nadia justifies that warning flag because she’s young and needs distraction. Then she finds herself pregnant, and Luke pulls away. What happens next keeps the whole town whispering and colors many lives for years to come, including that of “good” girl Aubrey, beloved by the church elders, the girl who wears a purity ring and goes to church not just to pad a college résumé, the girl who prays for Nadia and becomes her best friend.

“In her we saw us, or us as we used to be,” the Mothers confide. “Girls who had felt that first spark of a slow love. A pastor’s hand on our forehead and we had fallen, hands back and arms wide and crying out, for the first time, a man’s name. Jesus! And when we’d cried out a man’s name for the second time, it felt like a shadow of that first moment.”

But Aubrey has a secret, too, one she keeps from Nadia even as they grow close, just as Nadia doesn’t tell her about Luke. Bennett examines the pitfalls of love and betrayal between these women with compassion and dexterity, never relegating their bond to an afterthought.

“The Mothers” is not without its comic moments. Witness the Mothers’ wistful reminiscences: “We were girls once. ... Oh, you can’t see it now — our bodies have stretched and sagged, faces and necks drooping. ... But we were girls once, which is to say, we have all loved an ain’t-sh-- man. No Christian way of putting it.”

But Bennett sets her hooks in you in moments of quiet observation: a previously brusque nurse comforting a heartbroken Nadia (“He’s not coming, baby”) or the pain Luke feels at losing his ability to do what he loves (play football). Some of the introspection is unsettling, as when an elderly man chides Luke on his lack of ambition: “Somewhere along the way we became a race of men happy to let women take care of us.” But Bennett makes us love these flawed and aching characters like they’re our own.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.