Mother may I (have some book recommendations)?
July 30, 2014 9:19 PM   Subscribe

What are some novels featuring imperfect but sympathetically-portrayed mothers?

I recently read Rainbow Rowell's Landline, which I think I enjoyed largely because the protagonist was likeable despite her imperfect decisions. In particular, I appreciated that she clearly had a loving relationship with her kids but still had issues with them. Mefites, can you recommend other books with this dynamic? Where the protagonists (or other major characters) are mothers who are maybe ambivalent about having children but wind up raising them all right? Or who make bad parenting decisions sometimes but still seem like fundamentally decent people?

I guess maybe I'm asking for the fictional equivalent of some of the mothers from this post on the blue, but more like the mom who gave her kids Oreos for lunch and less like the one who doesn't love her kid at all.

posted by ferret branca to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You want Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:27 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I loved Mona Simpson's "My Hollywood." The Filipina nanny character is wonderfully written -- her fish-out-of-water take on things is very funny and moving. It's really the tale of two mothers (employer-mom and nanny-mom) struggling to make peace with the hard choices they've each had to make about child-rearing and work.

Plus, Simpson absolutely nailed a certain slice of L.A. culture. So perfect, it's almost painful.

I'm not a mom, but the book really touched me, much to my surprise.
posted by nacho fries at 9:48 PM on July 30, 2014

Are you familiar with the work of Alice Munro? If not, become so. Her work is technically classified as "short stories", but it is intricate and carefully nuanced (and some argue that she has achieved the novel within the short story form). This theme (among many others) pervades her work. And it is simply exquisite writing.
posted by trip and a half at 10:41 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jane Austen wrote mothers and maternal characters who were very flawed, though well-intentioned and loving. In particular, Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, and Lady Russell in Persuasion -- all of them act out of love, but make foolish or self-interested decisions that risk harming their daughters/goddaughters. (Don't underestimate Mrs. Bennet -- there's some excellent feminist criticism of P&P that points out how constrained she was by women's roles, and that her fears for her daughters if they did not marry were entirely well-founded. She's made to look quite foolish in the book, and especially the film adaptations, but it's quite clear that she did care for her children as best she was able to.)
posted by katemonster at 10:54 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is Where'd You Go, Bernadette too obvious an answer? Bernadette is a hot mess, but the one thing that remains constant is her love for her teenage daughter. I thought she was a great character and their relationship was very sweet.
posted by sunset in snow country at 11:16 PM on July 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

Okay, it's not Great Literature, but the most recent Bridget Jones book finds Bridget struggling with single motherhood in an imperfect but obviously loving way, and the sense is strong that despite all her anxieties and things-going-wrong, she is actually doing a perfectly competent job. That book is what the Oreos post most reminded me of, actually.
posted by lwb at 11:46 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has in my view one of the most sympathetic and realistic mother-daughter relationships.
posted by like_neon at 1:13 AM on July 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Rooms in My Mother's House by Olga Lorenzo
posted by evil_esto at 1:56 AM on July 31, 2014

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
posted by evil_esto at 1:58 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
posted by evil_esto at 2:07 AM on July 31, 2014

Margaret Laurence's The Fire Dwellers.
posted by brujita at 2:47 AM on July 31, 2014

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving.
posted by kuanes at 4:16 AM on July 31, 2014

Memoir rather than fiction, but you might take a look at Lauren Slater's Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother (review, different memoir essay just posted on The Blue, which made me think of her).
posted by drlith at 4:37 AM on July 31, 2014

Anna Quindlen's books generally involve motherhood.
posted by jeather at 4:47 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Let me enthusiastically second A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The mother character, Katie, lived a very hard life, and she was unsentimental towards her children. She was the anti-coddler, and I loved the character for that trait.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:15 AM on July 31, 2014

Rosie by Anne Lamott
posted by Redstart at 6:21 AM on July 31, 2014

Seconding Where'd You Go Bernadette.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman, though it's not immediately obvious.

The first book with a vivid mother-child relationship that came to mind (though it's been a while, so I can't say for sure how sympathetic the mother is):
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:26 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

These are children's books, but the Casson Family series by Hilary McKay. (Starts with Saffy's Angel.) The mother, Eve, is a little spacy but her love is always apparent.

For memoirs that read like fiction, Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth. Mom plays a prominent role in the first book but really shines in the second.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:44 AM on July 31, 2014

Just about every Anne Tyler book, but particularly Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Amateur Marriage, and Digging to America.
posted by h00py at 7:04 AM on July 31, 2014

Oh, and Liane Moriarty's books are generally about mothers. They're more chick lit (as a genre, not as a marker of quality).
posted by jeather at 7:06 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell
posted by WeekendJen at 7:07 AM on July 31, 2014

Response by poster: Aww, I love the Casson series; thanks for reminding me, ActionPopulated! And I have read Bernadette. Thanks everyone for the promising recs!
posted by ferret branca at 7:07 AM on July 31, 2014

Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen is a about two difficult mother-daughter relationships and features a mother who is very hard to like, but becomes more sympathetic with the unfolding of the story.

Books with adoptive moms who grow into the role:

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
The Anne of Green Gables books - Lucy Maud Montgomery

YA - parent-child relationships and how they change are so big in this genre.
Judy Blume wrote wonderfully realistic mother-daughter dynamics. I remember Just as Long as We're Together being just as much about the relationship between the protagonist and her mom as much as it was as a story about friendship.
The Inkeeper's Daughter by Barbara Cohen (this is sadly out of print but it is so good. Both the teenage protagonist and her mom are fully realized and complex, and their relationship is at the heart of the book.)

YA books featuring moms who were expected to fail but very much did not:
Silver by Norma Fox Mazer
Sunshine by Norma Klein (super tearjerker, be warned)
posted by prewar lemonade at 7:19 AM on July 31, 2014

Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? is amazing. Her mother is a very complicated and flawed woman who definitely made mistakes. And yet she and her daughter clearly also love each other. Not straightforward and gushy but very honest.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:05 PM on July 31, 2014

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has Topaz, a lovely stepmother character. She has some of the trappings of a bubble-headed trophy wife, but she's really a kind and pragmatic woman holding together her family under difficult circumstances.
posted by a fair but frozen maid at 10:49 AM on August 2, 2014

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