By Jenny Milchman
And do I have some books for you! Or for a mother in your life, or someone you think of as a mother, or someone who has or once had a mother—and I could go on. Point being that every one of us has been touched in some way by the concept of motherhood, whether in real life or theory.
But the books you’ll find below do not exemplify that theoretical concept of mother in the way our media often depicts it or our own idealized perception creates. These are no pastoral, beatific reads of Woman blooming with the life she’s about to bestow, then cradle through years of selfless giving.
I just watched the Brooke Shields’ documentary, Pretty Baby, and it demonstrated to me how damaging that ideal can be. Shields penned a memoir exploring some of the fallout.
It leaves us with an image that is often impossible to achieve, or leaves us with a feeling of “less than” when we consider the mothers in our lives. As opposed to realizing that we and they, like everyone else, are struggling to do the right thing, the best things we can, often under trying, difficult—or worse—circumstances.
So cheers to the mothers we know. Cheers to the mothers we are—to whomever we care for in our lives. (Pets included). And cheers to these books, which are not afraid to aim a spotlight on the dark underbelly of motherhood. After all, without darkness there is no light.
Mom wants to move in, and despite a troubled relationship, her daughter, Grace, allows it. On one level, Grace welcomes the financial help, but on another she is hoping for the kind of redemption story children often have trouble giving up on when it comes to their mothers. But with pandemic-era life wearing heavy, and Grace’s perception of real and not-real shifting, this is not exactly a match made in heaven.
Then Grace’s mother makes a ghastly accusation.
Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas
What a picture-perfect life Josephine Hurst has. Three growing children, a techie husband, and a beautiful, historic home. If only it didn’t take Josephine’s raving, narcissistic dominance and a level of parental control that could shut down the world-wide-web, to keep them all in check.
Oldest daughter Rose just ran off with her boyfriend. Or did she? What’s the real reason behind her disappearance? Can sister Violet figure it out before she winds up in a mental facility, driven there by a combination of drugs, disordered eating, and desperation? And is baby brother brilliant—or falling apart?
As Dad shrinks deeper and deeper into his own issues, this family is set on a collision course with no one other than dear old Mom.
Eight year old Rhoda Penmark is the sweetest little person in the world—except to the people she kills. Everyone around her is relentlessly blind to the evil this child exhibits—except her own mother, who’s torn between love and facing up to reality before another death takes place. Maybe her own.
There is a second source of evil in this novel lurking in the form of Rhoda’s genetic grandmother, a woman of myth and legend. Her arguable responsibility for the mayhem in the book is the source of its title. This classic gave birth—ha, see what I did there—to debate about a so-called murder gene, which still lives on in fiction (see below) and discussion today.
But I see this book as an allegory about a form of evil that causes death of a symbolic nature, in many more people than are murdered each year. What does it cost the girls of the world to be sweet and simpering and smiling, pigtailed and pretty and pink? Or their housewife mothers to hold down the fort, keep the home fires burning, largely unsung, when the men are away? Does a force with the strength of a tsunami lurk behind all these girls and women and potential moms?
Defending Jacob by William Landay
Andy and Laurie Barber love their son, Jacob, as most parents love their kids. So when a young boy is stabbed to death in a neighborhood park, and suspicion falls on Jacob, Andy and Laurie’s entire world is upended. Their marriage fractures. Andy’s career as assistant district attorney doesn’t exactly help. Nor does Jacob: mysterious, quiet, maybe not-quite-right.
This to-what-lengths-would-a-mother-go novel shocked its millions of readers (and viewers) with the final twist. Nothing says Happy Mother’s Day like this.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
There are two mothers in this novel—and a woman who desperately hopes to be one. Therein lies the heart of the psychological mystery in this story, and in Ng’s examination of the destructive impact both the implementation and notion of motherhood can have.
Elena Richardson is a perfect suburban mom who places waaay too much emphasis on perfection. Especially when it comes to the lives of her four children. When Mia Warren arrives in town with her own teenage daughter, the duo seems in some ways opposite to the Richardson troop: wild, messy, not tamped down.
But mothers are mothers and when Mia’s way of life threatens Elena’s carefully constructed one, while Elena’s approach to life threatens Mia’s closeness with her daughter, things are set to collapse. Especially when the two women wind up on opposing sides of a raging debate around whether a young child was rightfully adopted—or sacrificed on the fires of privilege and inequality.
Rogue Jenny Milchman is the Mary Higgins Clark award winning and PEN/Faulkner nominated author of five novels of suspense. Her work has been praised by the New York Times, chosen as Indie Next Picks, received starred reviews from PW, Booklist, and Library Journal, selected for numerous Best Of’s including Suspense Magazine, Pure Wow, and Popsugar, and appeared on the USA Today bestsellers list (once, but we authors like to name these things). In 2013, Jenny rented out her house, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and pulled her kids out of 1st and 3rd grades to “car-school” them on what Shelf Awareness called the world’s longest book tour. Jenny now speaks nationally on the literal and figurative road to a dream.
What an interesting compilation of stories about mothers and their challenges. I have to say – I have nothing but fond memories of my own mother who taught piano to children (and a few adults) until she was 90. Anyone remember “The Lawrence Welk TV show?” That popular band leader asked my mom to teach piano to his own daughter. Mom inspired me – and so many others – to develop a love of music. A very nice legacy!
My own mom was the epitome of sweet and loving—for which I give thanks every day when I see the havoc that parents can reign in other families. But, childless by choice, I can read these fascinating books with the security of thinking, well, I’D never do that, yet never having to find out firsthand if I am right!!
Ha, Lisa, that would never be the case based on what I know of you! And cheers to both your and Karna’s sweet moms.