The mother-daughter relationship is one explored again and again in fiction. Nuanced, complicated, often wonderful, and sometimes difficult, these books can offer readers insight into their own family ties and transgressions. So who better to share these books with than your own mother or daughter?
Don’t worry — this reading list isn’t meant to dredge up childhood injustices or parental aggravations. These books tell masterful, timeless stories that are sure to present common ground upon which mothers and daughters can tread meaningfully.
Here is a list of great books that explore all types of mother-daughter relationships. Publishers’ descriptions included below.
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
Four bold, resourceful, and sensuous women come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her twin grandsons, rendered mute by their own witness. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman, who finds passion with another soldier. Shirah is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power. The four lives intersect in the desperate days of the siege, as the Romans draw near. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets — about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love.
Book club discussion points: Mothers, mentors, grandmothers, and daughters together play a big part in keeping the settlement of Masada running, but their roles go beyond many of the traditional domestic tomes. How are these relationships applied in modern life? Does it still take a village?
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect; and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle — and people in general — has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence — creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.
Book club discussion points: The secret lives of mothers and daughters are explored in great detail here, as well as the many facets that make up a woman — especially a mother. What parts of ourselves do we put aside to care for our children — or our parents — and why do we feel we must?
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At 50 years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life — and her relationship with her family and the world — forever.
Book club discussion points: For better or for worse, there is much that we inherit from our mothers. Would you change any of those things? Are there things that you wished had been passed on to you, or that you had passed on to your own child?
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
They are the Pipers of Cape Breton Island — a family steeped in lies and unspoken truths that reach out from the past, forever mindful of the tragic secret that could shatter the family to its foundations. Chronicling five generations of this eccentric clan, Fall on Your Knees follows four remarkable sisters whose lives are filled with driving ambition, inescapable family bonds, and forbidden love. Their experiences will take them from their storm-swept homeland, across the battlefields of World War I, to the freedom and independence of Jazz-era New York City.
Book club discussion points: How much of our mother’s past imprints on our own life? Is our destiny inherently tied into our ancestral experience? We know that parents will make sacrifices for their children, but how much of a sacrifice should a child be expected to make for their parents and siblings?
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina — a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
Book club discussion points: Who are the mother figures in your life, and how have they shaped your own experience as a woman, mother, or daughter? What stories and occurrences have shaped your own family’s mythology? Has that mythology ever been challenged?
The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
“I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.” So begins The Virgin Cure, a novel set in the tenements of lower Manhattan in the year 1871. As a young child, Moth’s father smiled, tipped his hat, and walked away from her forever. The summer she turned 12, her mother sold her as a servant to a wealthy woman, with no intention of ever seeing her again.
These betrayals lead Moth to the wild, murky world of the Bowery, filled with house-thieves, pickpockets, beggars, sideshow freaks, and prostitutes, where eventually she meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as “The Infant School.” Miss Everett caters to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are “willing and clean,” and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like Moth.
Book club discussion points: Did Moth’s mother act selfishly, or was it in fact an attempt to offer a sense of hope to Moth’s life? How did your own family cope with times of dire hardship in its history?
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that are about her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons. Told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood — the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of her mothers — Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah — the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through a hard-working youth, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. Dinah’s story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past. Deeply affecting, The Red Tent combines rich storytelling with a valuable achievement in modern fiction: a new view of biblical women’s society.
Book club discussion points: How has modern life strayed from a communal support system for women? Have we reestablished it in smaller ways? Is your own family led by a strong maternal presence?
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Violet is one of the most celebrated courtesans in Shanghai, a beautiful and intelligent woman who has honed her ability to become any man’s fantasy since her start as a “Virgin Courtesan” at the age of 12. Half-Chinese and half-American, she moves effortlessly between the East and the West. But her talents belie her private struggle to understand who she really is and her search for a home in the world. Abandoned by her mother, Lucia, and uncertain of her father’s identity, Violet’s quest to truly love and be loved will set her on a path fraught with danger and complexity — and the loss of her own daughter.
Lucia, a willful and wild American woman who was once herself the proprietress of Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house, nurses her own secret wounds, which she first sustained when, as a teenager, she fell in love with a Chinese painter and followed him from San Francisco to Shanghai. Her search for penance and redemption will bring her to a startling reunion with Flora, Violet’s daughter, and will shatter all that Violet believed she knew about her mother.
Book club discussion points: Love and reconciliation are strong themes throughout this book, but must there be punishment before forgiveness can be meted out? Where did your family originate? Is immigration something that still influences your life?
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Astrid is the only child of a single mother, Ingrid, a brilliant, obsessed poet who wields her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. Astrid worships her mother and cherishes their private world full of ritual and mystery — but their idyll is shattered when Astrid’s mother falls apart over a lover. Deranged by rejection, Ingrid murders the man, and is sentenced to life in prison. Astrid is forced into a journey through a series of foster homes and an effort to find a place for herself in impossible circumstances.
Each home is its own universe, with a new set of laws and lessons to be learned. With determination and humor, Astrid confronts the challenges of loneliness and poverty, and strives to learn who a motherless child in an indifferent world can become.
Book club discussion points: Ingrid always treated Astrid more like a peer than a child, which is unsustainable when Ingrid lapses in her ability to care for Astrid. Is an unconventional relationship between a mother and daughter always doomed? In what ways is your own relationship with your mother or daughter unconventional?
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Alice Metcalf was a devoted mother, loving wife, and accomplished scientist who studied grief among elephants. Yet it’s been a decade since she disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind her small daughter, husband, and the animals to which she devoted her life. All signs point to abandonment… or worse. Still Jenna — now 13 years old and truly orphaned by a father maddened by grief — steadfastly refuses to believe in her mother’s desertion. So she decides to approach the two people who might still be able to help her find Alice: a disgraced psychic named Serenity Jones, and Virgil Stanhope, the cynical detective who first investigated her mother’s disappearance and the strange, possibly linked death of one of her mother’s co-workers. Together these three lonely souls will discover truths destined to forever change their lives.
Book club discussion points: Was Alice selfish to continue her work while leaving a child behind? Why does Jenna need to know the truth of her mother’s whereabouts so desperately? And why does society punish mothers who leave their children so much more severely than fathers who do the same?
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book — a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her 21st birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, “Nell” sets out to trace her real identity. Her quest leads her to Blackhurst Manor on the Cornish coast and the secrets of the doomed Mountrachet family. But it is not until her granddaughter, Cassandra, takes up the search after Nell’s death that all the pieces of the puzzle are assembled.
Book club discussion points: What makes up a family, and why does Nell feel the need to find the identity of her biological parents desperately? Would it have been better to withhold the truth from Nell?
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.
Book club discussion points: Estrangement can be a terrible thing in a family, but it also fueled all of Lucy’s experiences. Are the two women more alike than they care to admit? Are there women in your own family for whom this is likely true?
What mother-daughter books would you recommend? Tell us in the comments!