The two-paragraph version: Frida is a mother who gets reported for neglect when she leaves her baby daughter, Harriet, alone for a few hours. Child Protective Services separates her from Harriet, investigates her and determines that she must enter into a year-long prison-like rehabilitation program to assess her capacity as a mother. In this unforgiving and intrusive environment where they track their every move, the mothers are given lessons and prescriptive instructions on how to raise children, followed by periodic evaluations. They are given life-like robot stand-in doll to work with. They are also taught to ignore their own needs and desires for the sake of the children, and they are told repeatedly that they are bad mothers.
Finally, Frida completes the program, but the judge determines that her performance was unsatisfactory and terminates her rights. In the end, Frida kidnaps Harriet to spend a little more time with her, knowing she will go to jail as a result. She hopes someday as an adult Harriet will come find her and that she can perhaps help Harriet raise her own child.
In Chapters 1 – 4, Frida is contacted by the police that they have her 1-year-old daughter Harriet in their custody after neighbors reported hearing the girl crying in distress. Frida, who shares joint custody of Harriet with her ex-husband Gust, admits her mistake that she left the baby alone for a few hours. Harriet is taken away from Frida and placed with Gust and his young girlfriend Susanna (who Gust cheated on Frida with) while Child Protective Services begins their investigation of Frida.
Soon, cameras are installed in Frida’s home, along with tracking devices on her phone and computer. Frida sleeps poorly and loses weight from the stress. She is given two short visits with Harriet, both of which go poorly. They are rushed, Harriet is distressed by the separation from her mother, and Harriet responds poorly to the social worker’s demands that Frida play with Harriet instead of comforting her.
Finally, when her hearing arrives, Frida is determined to be unstable and a bad mother. She’s ordered to attend a year-long rehabilitation program if she wants any chance of restoring her parental rights.
In Chapters 5 – 7, Frida begins the program in December, which takes place on former college campus. They are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent them from talking about their experiences in the program. She not permitted to bring personal possessions with her and is assigned a small room and a roommate. They are given jumpsuits to wear along with other basic necessities. They are only permitted to 10 minutes on Sundays to make calls to the outside, and they cannot receive letters or packages.
The mothers there divided into small cohorts based on having children of the same gender and age group. Frida’s group consists of Linda, Lucinda (“Lu”), Beth and Meryl. They are each given alarmingly life-life robot dolls that resemble their own children in terms of age and ethnicity. The dolls run on a type of blue liquid that must be changed monthly in a process that causes the dolls great discomfort.
The mothers are told they need to bond with and treat these dolls like their own children, since they will be assessed accordingly. Frida names hers Emmanuelle. The curriculum for the year consists of a series of units, followed by an evaluation after each unit. The first unit is about care and nurturing, and the mothers slowly start to bond with their dolls. Frida’s first evaluation goes smoothly.
In Chapters 8 – 11, Lu’s doll dies when Lu allows it to play in the snow without a hat or mittens. Lu is distraught and gets into a fight with Linda. It results in Lu’s expulsion, which means she has lost custody of her child permanently.
Soon after, Frida is distressed when she learns that Susanna has put Harriet on a low-carb diet. She ends up pinching Emmanuelle in a fit of frustration. For this offense, Frida is sent to “talk circle”, where the mothers are told to talk about their transgressions, to refer to themselves as “bad” mothers and asked intrusive questions. Frida’s next evaluation — where they are tested in their ability to calm their doll down and put them to bed — goes poorly. Frida loses her Sunday phone privileges, which means she is cut off from contact with Harriet.
A few weeks later, there are two days when all the mothers get their phones back temporarily, and Frida is finally able to call Harriet. It’s part of a lesson on parenting with distractions. Frida is torn between her responsibilities for the doll and her desire to make the most of her contact with Harriet. When their time is up, it turns out all the moms did poorly by indulging in contact with their children instead of staying focused on their dolls. Frida and the rest of the mothers are chastised for poor impulse control and for their “narcissistic” desires.
In Chapters 12 – 13, Frida gets sent to “talk circle” again, this time because she yelled at a boy doll who hit Emmanuelle and refused to apologize. In another lesson about distractions, Frida does poorly when she allows herself to be distracted by them showing her a video of Harriet who is upset about Frida’s absence.
When they hit the six-month mark in the program, Frida is given a brain scan as they evaluate her responses to images of her experiences at the center. They also interview Emmanuelle to see how Frida is progressing as a mother. They determine that Frida’s prognosis (for her chances of having her custody restored) are “poor to fair”.
The next two units are about teaching the dolls how to play peacefully and Frida does well in both of them.
In Chapters 14 – 15, the father’s rehabilitation candidates (housed across the river from them) are bussed in for a picnic to kick off the co-ed portion of their training. Frida meets Tucker, a 40-something father who was reported for negligence when his young son fell out of a tree on his watch. Frida is surprised to learn that the father’s campus is much less restrictive and much more supportive. As they co-ed training continues, Tucker tries to flirt with Frida. While she desires him, she resists his advances since fraternization is off-limits here.
At Frida’s next evaluation, her prognosis is upgraded to “fair” and her phone privileges are restored. She’s surprised to learn that Susanna is now 21 weeks pregnant and that Susanna and Gust are getting married in December. Soon, when Frida is caught flirting with Tucker, her phone privileges are taken away again.
At the end-of-summer, a dance takes place but is interrupted when they determine that three people have escaped from the facility — Meryl (a teen mother), Roxanne (Frida’s roommate) and Colin (one of the fathers).
In Chapters 16 – 17, Frida is placed on a watch list since she was close two of the three escapees. Meanwhile, the next unit is about protecting their dolls from dangerous, and the parents are put required to do things like fight off potential attackers. Like many of their lessons, the setup of these lessons are overly reductive and formulaic. Soon, Tucker’s flirting lands Frida in “talk circle” yet again.
When Meryl shows up again, they learn that she made it home, but her mother reported her and refused to let her see her daughter. Meryl was then brought back here and trapped in the basement for a while.
As the end of the program nears, Susanna gives birth early to a baby boy, Henry, and is at the hospital. Meanwhile, Emmanuelle is doing well and Frida manages to place first in her cohort for the final evaluation, which is about teaching moral responsibility. She has a final brain scan and counseling session. She is feeling hopeful, but she starts to worry when there seems to be focus on her flirtation with Tucker. While she resisted it, she is being criticized for desiring him instead of focusing on mothering Emmanuelle.
At Meryl’s final evaluation, it becomes clear that Meryl is unlikely to get custody of her daughter, Ocean. Moreover, social workers have deemed her mother and the baby’s father as unsuitable guardians. Therefore, it is likely Ocean will be sent to foster care. That night, Meryl kills herself.
In Chapter 18, Frida’s final hearing determines that she is not a fit mother, and she permanently loses custody of Harriet. She is also not allowed to reach out to Harriet. She has a final 30-minute visit with Harriet, which is tearful and upsetting. Since Frida gave up her apartment and job to attend the rehabilitation program, Frida is now staying with Will, a friend who is also Gust’s best friend.
Frida attempts to move on with her life. However, one night Gust gets called to the hospital regarding baby Henry, he asks Will to watch Harriet. Frida decides to ask Will to let her in when Harriet is asleep so she can watch Harriet sleep. Will reluctantly agrees, and he steps out to give her some privacy. When he does, Frida packs up Harriet’s things and drives off with Harriet.
The book ends with Frida driving down the highway with Harriet, knowing that she will be stopped and locked up at some point. However, she wanted to spend a little more time with Harriet. Frida hopes that someday when Harriet is older she will seek Frida out, and Frida hopes that if Harriet has her own kids someday that she can help raise them. Frida also puts a photo of herself and Emmanuelle in Harriet’s pocket in the hope that Gust and Susanna will find it and ask her lawyer about it so there will be inquiries into what is going on exactly at the rehabilitation center.
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.