Jessamine Chan wants you to know she really did like living in Philly. Especially West Philly, where she and her documentary filmmaker husband spent four happy years in a Spruce Hill community of writers, moms, and writer-moms.

After reading The School for Good Mothers, Chan’s chilling, unforgiving yet also somehow darkly comic debut novel set in Philadelphia, about a mother whose overreliance on an Exersaucer earns her a yearlong trip to a reeducation school run by Aunt Lydia-like government social workers, you might think she couldn’t wait to leave the place.

“We miss Philly so much,” insists Chan, who says she made a “pandemic decision” in July to move to suburban Chicago with her husband and 4½-year-old daughter to be closer to her parents. (That might come as a relief to readers of her book, in which the maternal grandparents are cut off from their grandchild along with the mother).

Chan, 43, allows that the cool reception she and her husband received during the three years they spent in South Philly gave her plenty of material. In the book, the fictional Frida Liu, a Philly transplant and newly divorced mom with a toddler named Harriet, has one very bad day and is dimed out to child protective services by neighbors in Passyunk Square. (Chan name-checks a dozen or more Philly neighborhoods in her book, in addition to the restaurants Zahav and Barbuzzo.)

“Honestly, we had very different experiences living in different neighborhoods in Philly,” Chan said. “I cannot speak for what all of South Philly is like. Our particular block was a little bit chilly. We tried really hard. I think we were the newcomers. We were definitely not super welcome there.”

As an Asian American with a white husband on a block where “people had been there a long time,” she said, “we were just particularly out of place.”

After the fictional Frida is caught leaving her daughter alone for several hours (she went for coffee and to retrieve a file from a low-level job at Penn), she goes down a rabbit hole of bureaucratic surveillance and shaming. Her husband, Gust, meanwhile, continues to live out his dreams with the younger free spirit he left Frida for. (Pointedly, Gust is never held accountable for his transgressions.)

After a court hearing, Frida lands in a newly opened reeducation school in which the parents are given lifelike dolls programmed with artificial intelligence and a curriculum to practice and prove their maternal bona fides, all while their contact with their real children is punishingly withheld. She ultimately takes a risky liking to a dad from Germantown doing time in the more-lenient fathers’ school — he is assigned a doll named Jeremy — for texting while his son fell out of a tree.

Chan’s sympathies lie with the flawed parents, who fight off urges to hook up with another with varying degrees of success, struggle with suicidal feelings, and debate the societal forces that landed them in this joint, and control their varying outcomes. The government workers from the child protective services, meanwhile, record and measure all the encounters with the dolls (Liu’s is named Emmanuelle, and is mostly sensitive and delightful), break appointments, show up late, and impose their own notions of parenting, with no room for any cultural differences.

The book, published by Simon & Schuster with a Jan. 4 release date, touches on issues of racism, sexism, and privilege, exploring the way an Asian American woman winds up in the middle of a lot of these dynamics, or on the outside.

Chan said she was eager to write a book featuring a main character that truly resonated.

“It was an important motivator, creating the kind of Chinese American heroine that I’ve always wanted to see on the page,” she said. “To have a character of color who is so flawed, an Asian American who’s so flawed. I find characters of color aren’t allowed to be a mess on the page. Even though she makes so many mistakes, her heart is in the right place.”

The mistakes she makes can be infuriating, and they propel a plot that can feel unnecessarily punitive. But Chan says she got the idea from a nonfiction New Yorker article in which a mother lost parental rights after a similar incident. Fueled by her own anxiety about motherhood, the plot took off. The book rarely cuts Frida much more of a break than does the society that insists on controlling her, or a mother’s own self-recrimination. It is a bleak portrayal, but Chan says, “earlier drafts were much bleaker.”

Chan says the experience of moms over the last two years — left to fend with children at home during a pandemic, dealing with remote learning, working from home, or having to give up work altogether, without much if any help ― really drove home some of the themes in a book she began in 2014.

“There’s so much burden placed on moms to figure out a solution in a system that’s broken,” she said. “They’re supposed to solve the problems on an individual level even though the problems are systemic.”

Since she got the idea for the book, and many of the dystopian elements took root — the dolls, the surveillance, the loss of control to government minders — real-life events and the nation’s political and cultural climate have only made the book feel more realistic, she says, including the congressional resistance to paid parental leave and the recent Supreme Court arguments over Mississippi’s abortion law.

“It reads differently than it would have three years ago,” she said. “It’s amazing to me a month, two months ago, the debate was about four weeks of parental leave. After four weeks, I couldn’t walk.”

Chan said she’s been thrilled by the reception early copies of the book have gotten, though she is trying to promote the book’s humorous tone in addition to the focus on its terrifyingly, chilling and dystopian plot.

“I don’t necessarily [think] it was ever intended to be an uplifting book,” she said. “At its heart, it’s about a mother trying to win back her child. I would love for people to emerge from this book feeling seen.”