Of course, mothers are everywhere, in life and in fiction. There aren’t many novels that don’t have a mother in them somewhere. I’ve chosen these novels because they each have something interesting to say about motherhood — how women fulfil, evade, transcend or defy the expectations of the role.
Click on linked headings to read my full reviews.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge of Crosby, Maine is a fascinatingly flawed character. Awkward, abrasive, at times cruel to her own family, she is, however, capable of great insight and compassion towards outsiders (a combination I recognise after my years working in the caring professions!).
The novel takes the form of linked stories which cover many decades of her life, so you see the development of her relationship with her only son, Chris, and the way it becomes more constrained over the years.
One of the hardest things for Olive is that she has enough insight to know that the adult Chris doesn’t much like her, and that she may, in some ways, be responsible. Her attempts to reach out to him in adulthood are alternately comical, poignant and exasperating. Strout brilliantly captures the sense that Olive is trying, but cannot stop herself from committing extravagant acts of sabotage.
In the Field portrays two very different women each searching for their missing son in an unnamed African country.
Christine Lokeka’s son has been kidnapped by militia in an unnamed African country. She hopes he is dead. The alternative, that he will become a child soldier and a killer himself, is unbearable. But then she finds a new purpose.
Orin Perth, a Western war reporter, covers Christine’s story and then disappears. His mother Liz, also a foreign correspondent, recognises she has been a flawed mother, always putting her career first, but now she is determined to find her son.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
I’m still haunted by this story of a boy growing up in 80s Glasgow, it is so intense, dark and moving (and yet, somehow, funny).
Alcoholic Agnes Bain frequently fails to meet the most basic needs of her children. Manipulative, mercurial and demanding, it is Shuggie who is looking after her from a young age.
But there is another side to Agnes. Trapped in a world which feels too small for her, always elegant, even at her lowest, there is something magnificent about her. She teaches Shuggie to have pride in himself, and celebrates his unique perspective in defiance of a community which demands conformity.
Rose Gold’s mother, Patty, has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for putting her daughter through years of unnecessary and painful medical treatment. Rose Gold, who has just become a mother herself, takes her in.
As well as being a darkly comic cat-and-mouse thriller, the novel paints a vivid picture of Munchausen’s by proxy and what drove Patty to behave that way. You see how her easy charm and friendliness allowed her to manipulate experienced professionals for so long.
Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
Breathing Lessons is one of Tyler’s most comedic novels with some great set-piece scenes (I laughed out loud several times). The action takes place over a single day, as Maggie Moran and her husband Ira travel to an old friend’s funeral.
Maggie’s desire to make life better for everyone has unforeseen consequences. Numerous disasters befall them along the way, each leading one of them to reflect on aspects of their life and marriage.
But it’s her adult son who Maggie is really concerned about. His life hasn’t quite turned out how his parents imagined. When she hears a call on a radio phone-in she becomes convinced she has the chance to finally turn his life around.
All Adults Here is a novel that manages to be both light-hearted and profound, about the ongoing burdens – and joys – of motherhood.
Astrid Strick’s children are supposedly all grown up. Her sons are parents themselves and her daughter, Porter, is wondering if she should be. But Astrid can’t help feeling regret and responsibility for things said and left unsaid. The death of a neighbour in their close-knit community shakes her up she decides that it’s time to level with her children – and let them take responsibility for their own feelings.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
There’s ongoing discontent that stepmothers get a bad rap in fiction, particularly in children’s books, so I thought I should include a positive example.
The Mortmains are living in genteel poverty in a crumbling castle while their father struggles with writer’s block. Cassandra, his younger daughter, narrates the tale, as she and her older sister, Rose, try to get Rose married off to a wealthy American.
Topaz, their stepmother, is a willing accomplice. She is a beautiful, bohemian former artist’s model who likes to wander the countryside wearing nothing but hip boots, but she also shows great affection for her stepchildren and a surprising practical streak.
Such a Fun Age is in part about the fraught relationship between a mother and her children’s carer.
Affluent white lifestyle blogger Alix has two daughters but finds it hard to bond with three-year-old Briar. Emira is the young black woman who babysits for them, and forms a close bond with the complex, clever, unpredictable Briar. Alix is overly intrusive in her wish to get close to Emira, for reasons that become clear through the book.
Such a Fun Age explores the uncomfortable dynamics between the two women, the personal, economic and racial differences that constrain them, and the emotional toll of caring for a child who is not your own, knowing that the only way to move on in life is to leave her with a mother who may not meet her needs.
Set in 1960s London, in a time of social change, this is about the conflict between a mother and his son’s new wife, Alice, as they stare across cultural and social divides. Gilda Meyer is reluctant to cede control of her son to a woman who is everything she is not – blonde, independent, popular.
Her obsession with Alice and her determination to intercede between her son and his bride make her both the mother and the mother-in-law from hell. However, as the story develops, we understand more about what made Gilda the way she is.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Set in an apparently harmonious Ohio community in the 90s, Little Fires Everywhere interrogates the idea of a ‘good’ mother. Pearl is brought up by Mia, her transient artist single mother. When they arrive in Shaker Heights, she falls in with the family of their landlady, Elena the respected and gregarious mother of a lively and popular brood. They appear to have the stability and closeness which her own life has lacked.
However, the two mothers become divided over a custody battle between affluent white adoptive parents, and the biological mother, a Chinese waitress who gave up the child at a time of crisis. Soon the families and the community are divided and the spotlight falls on Mia and Elena’s own lives.
Little Fires Everywhere is particularly poignant because much of it is narrated by Pearl, who has her own struggles with belonging and growing up, and whose life is becoming ever more entangled with Elena’s children, just as their mothers are in conflict.
Sofia, who is in her twenties and hasn’t yet managed to start a career, has travelled to Spain with her mother Rose. Rose has used her hypochondria to manipulate Sofia as long as she can remember. Now they are here to consult a famed surgeon about her bizarre symptoms.
Hot Milk is a clever, complex, funny book about life on the periphery – of a family, a country, a continent — but at its heart is the spiky co-dependant’s dance between mother and daughter.
One of the tropes of domestic thrillers is that a woman will go to any lengths to protect her child. This is taken to deliciously ridiculous lengths in menopause noir Worst Case Scenario.
Probation officer Mary Shields is fending off boob sweat and social media pile-ons when she finds herself at a book launch for one of her clients, a convicted wife killer turned men’s rights activist. When her teenage son becomes involved with his daughter, she will stop at nothing to extricate him. Since her client refuses to play by the rules, why should she?
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an interesting novel about foodie culture and passion and obsessive focus, but it is also about a mother who breaks the ultimate taboo and abandons her baby.
Cynthia walks away from motherhood, not because of poverty or illegitimacy or psychological breakdown, but because she wants her freedom. She has just married a chef who wants to settle down and teach their daughter, Eva, about the delights of cuisine. He is planning elaborate taster menus before she is even weaned.
Cynthia, however, has discovered wine (and a handsome sommelier). She wants to visit the vineyards of the world and pursue her own dream. Her husband is a devoted father to Eva. Eva will be find without her, won’t she?
In Actress, Norah writes about her life with her beautiful, famous and elusive mother, the actress Katherine O’Dell, from performing in the halls of rural Ireland to the heart of Dublin society to her brief brush with Hollywood stardom.
Norah’s attempt to capture her mother on the page is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. Her affection for her mother is tempered by an awareness of her flaws as she strives to capture the ‘real’ Katherine.
Despite that, there is a sense that Norah is as caught up in the mythology of Katherine as the fans and academics and historians who frequently write to Norah beg for her memories.
Pachinko is a vividly painted family saga which spans generations, beginning in Korea in the early twentieth century. At its heart is Sunja, a woman who shows great strength and resilience in very constrained circumstances. After she gives birth to an illegitimate son in Korea, she accepts an offer of marriage to a man she doesn’t love and goes with him to Japan in the hope of a better life for their family.
Sunja struggles through poverty, injustice and the daily humiliations of life as an immigrant for her sons, while railing against her own mother’s belief that women are meant to suffer for others.
The novel highlights the difficult conditions Korean immigrants faced in Japan. Their children, generations on, were still excluded from citizenship. Her sons’ different responses to prejudice, and to the compromises Sunja has made for their sake, offer a fascinating insight into their experience.