One of the subjects I really enjoy in fiction is mother-daughter relationships. First of all, is it not a great way to centre the story around women? Also, I think consuming a lot of media growing up where mothers are frequently fridged (looking at you, every superhero comic book ever), I now want to see the opposite!
I wrote a list like this last year – five fiction books about motherhood.
We Need to Talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver
Synopsis: Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of a boy named Kevin who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who had tried to befriend him. Now, two years after her son’s horrific rampage, Eva comes to terms with her role as Kevin’s mother in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband Franklyn.
I read and reviewed this book as part of the Women’s Fiction Challenge, and I’m very glad I did. I think it’s one of those books you always hear about and never actually consider reading, but I highly recommend it.
The story is told all from Eva’s perspective, in a series of letters where it feels as though she is talking directly to the reader. Eva delves into everything, from how much she did and did not want a child, to her [[disgruntlement? annoyance??]] at her child and the warning signs she supposedly sees in his childhood. However, the fact that we don’t really get anyone but Eva’s perspective is what makes the book – pretty lengthy, over 400 pages – such a fast and compelling read, if not very heart-wrenching.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
Synopsis: Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born – a history whose epicentre is rooted in Vietnam – and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation.
This book is on my ‘I like to try and talk about it casually even though I have extremely uncasual feelings about it’ list and well, I think that should be enough said. First of all, you can tell the author is a poet because of the lyricism in the story, but the actual content of it is gripping too.
It is told from the perspective of a man reflecting back on his childhood with his mother, who cannot read or write English. He also talks about his grandmother, and the way he was raised by two women suffering from great trauma after having lived through the Vietnam War and the racism and poverty they faced after immigrating to the US. It is, undoubtedly, a very heavy subject matter, but a coming-of-age story for three different generations that touches your heart.
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
Synopsis: In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principal is playing by the rules. Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons.
This is one of those books that have kept me accusing company for the whole pandemic, waiting for me to read them. I finally got around to it ahead of writing this list and I’m very glad I did!
This is a captivating book that brings to the fore every intricacy of human emotion. It is both a neighbourhood story, collecting together a disparate range of characters, as well as one that focuses intimately on individuals and the reasons why they make the choices and decisions that they do.
This is displayed in exemplary fashion by the way each character is written, simultaneously as the protagonist and supporting character. For example Pearl, new to the area, functions both as an entry into the privileged family of the Richardsons as well as into her mother, Mia’s life. The side story, of the baby girl Mrs Richardson’s friends hope to adopt and how it impacts these characters is just the catalyst of a difficult situation causing everyone to betray their upbringings, yet the story also never forgets the baby girl herself.
It is such a breathless read and the title is not only brilliant, but such an accurate rendering of the story.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Synopsis: In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a cafe which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.
An unexpected item on the ‘about motherhood’ list? Maybe! Because this book is a short story that contains shorter stories within it, it does cover a variety of topics. One of the key ones is motherhood, or more specifically, the relationship between mothers and daughters.
If you know the premise of this book – time travel (kinda) – then you should already be preapred for the somewhat harrowing aspect a story could take. Unlike most of the above, this mother-daughter story is told from the perspective of both parties involved, and even though it is very small, it has a big impact, both on the reader and on the rest of the book.
Dominicana – Angie Cruz
Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.
This was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, so I read it, naturally, and loved it. You can look at my review if you want a slightly more in-depth understanding of what it’s about, but for a story that is told only from the perspective of a fifteen-year old girl abruptly cut off from her whole family, there is a whole, intergenerational epic that occurs in the pages.
The mother-daughter story in this book occurs two ways. Firstly, Ana’s mother is a very solid presence in her life. She makes the rules, she enforces them. She is the one pressing Ana to get married and immigrate from the Dominican Republic to the US, so she can pull the rest of her family along with her, and Ana only complies. But then there is also the part of the story where Ana starts formulating her own ideas on motherhood and the life she would want for her child.
Have you read any of these books? What do you think about mother-daughter relationships in fiction?