By Sally Allen
Ideally, the holiday season is a month-long celebration of family and community, love and renewal. The reality can be … a little bit different. In those moments when the holiday rush creeps ever closer, it might help to remember that reading is, famously, an excellent stress reliever and an even better teacher.
As to the later, visiting with some of literature’s strong mothers might be just the thing to provide perspective, clarity, and a metaphorical cleansing breath. The following 10 books all feature mothers who juggle competing demands, wrestle with ideals versus reality, and make difficult choices, often under impossible conditions.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Rowell’s most recent novel happens to be eminently suitable for this time of year: The story takes place in the week leading up to Christmas. Los Angeles-based comedy television writer Georgie McCool plans to head to her husband Neal’s Nebraska hometown for the holidays with their two daughters. But one week out, she receives the opportunity of a lifetime: Her own show. The catch? She and her writing partner must produce four scripts in 10 days.
Stay-at-home dad Neal, once a comic illustrator/writer and aspiring oceanographer, refuses to cancel the trip and leaves with their girls. Brooding and anxious that his departure may not be temporary, Georgie retreats to her mother’s house, where she discovers an old rotary phone that connects her to Neal … in 1998, the year the couple wrestled with whether to continue their relationship or part ways for good. As modern-day Georgie revisits old battlegrounds with 1998 Neal, she is reminded of the compromises both have made, forcing her to reckon with their choices and question the 1998 breakup-that-wasn’t. Underlying the tender exploration of what a grown-up relationship looks like lie the unsettling implications of undoing the past that Georgie confronts as a mother: What if I had never had my children?
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Bowers
Wartime experiences are recounted in this epistolary novel set on the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands and in London during and after World War II. The story begins with Guernsey resident Dawsey seeking a book recommendation. He finds the name and address of one Julie Ashton inscribed on the inside cover of a book and writes to her for help. An author seeking the subject of her next book, Juliet is drawn into his story of a wartime literary society, and the two continue exchanging letters. Their correspondence pulls in a diverse, quirky, and loveable cast of characters who participated in the eponymous Society, which bloomed from a moment of desperation. Caught out past curfew after an illicit pig roast, the islanders invented the group’s existence as an explanation then turned it into a reality.
The novel explores the power, pleasure, and consolation of reading and community, but motherhood also figures into the story, in two significant ways. On the eve of the anticipated Nazi landing, Guernsey political leaders requested ships from England to evacuate the island’s children. Without knowing what was to come, mothers were asked to make an impossible decision whether their children would be safer in the arms of strangers or at home. A second, more substantial, subplot features the relationship between Juliet and a war orphan with whom she develops a deep bond, inviting us to define motherhood not only by blood but also by choice.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
A family in crisis embarks on a two-week vacation to Mallorca in Straub’s summer hit (which may evoke pleasing memories of warmer days for those of us living in cold states). The trip, planned as a celebration of Jim and Franny’s 35th wedding anniversary, takes on quite a different hue by departure day: Jim has been fired from his magazine job for an offense revealed halfway through the novel by Franny, a journalist with an extravagant spirit. Their daughter Sylvia has just graduated high school and has her own agenda for the vacation, while son Bobby brings his much older girlfriend, Carmen, who none of the family particularly likes. Rounding out the group of travelers are Franny’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence.
Though there are surprises in store, this is not a plot-driven novel; it travels deep into the inner lives of the characters and the dynamics among them. Straub moves in and out of the consciousness of each player, often hitting on emotional truths with pathos and a generous dose of biting wit. At the heart of the group and, arguably, the story is Franny, whose strong opinions about family and motherhood give mothers much to consider.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
When it comes to strong mothers in literature, Mrs. March—the mother of Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth in Alcott’s American classic—always makes the cut and is usually at the head of the class. Raising her four daughters alone while her husband serves as a chaplain in the Union army during the Civil War, she devotes her time to charitable causes, takes food off her own spare table to feed others with greater needs, and provides firm but gentle counsel to her girls. The only potential downside to Marmee (as she is affectionately known to her daughters) as a role model is that she sets the bar so darn high!
But we can take heart from remembering that Marmee’s good sense comes from self-reflection and correction, revealed after Jo, furious with Amy for burning Jo’s book, nearly lets Amy drown. As Jo tearfully confesses her fear that her temper will lead to devastating consequences if she doesn’t learn to control it, Marmee reveals her own life-long struggle to manage her quick temper. This self-disclosure is an inspiring reminder that we can strive to be our best selves, even when it’s most difficult and even though we won’t be perfect.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The title refers to the many lives of Ursula Todd, who we meet at her birth in 1910. Ursula’s first shot at life ends before it has a chance to begin: She is stillborn. But never mind that. Ursula is born again and again and again and … well, you get the picture. With each return, Ursula carries intuitive knowledge that helps her navigate the influenza outbreak of 1918, married life (and not), and World War II, providing quite a panoramic view of major events of the early 20th century.
Life After Life also provides a broad view of motherhood through snapshots of Sylvie Todd, Ursula’s mother. We see Sylvie as first a vibrant, idealistic young girl embarking on married life with her dashing husband, then as a young mother enchanted by her tiny charges, then devastated by two deaths in her family. Sylvie’s transformation, though not the centerpiece of the novel, encapsulates the questions at the heart of the novel (and of motherhood) about the implications of our choices and how to move forward in an imperfect world.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Chock full of unexpected twists, Oyeyemi’s novel is a revision of “Snow White” set in mid-20th century New England. The eponymous Boy is a 20-year girl when she flees her abusive father (her mother is absent) in New York circa 1953. She lands in Flax Hill, Mass., where she meets and eventually marries the widowed Arturo Whitman, whose daughter Snow enchants everyone she meets, including Boy.
The happy idyll is broken after Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, and a secret is revealed: The Whitmans are African-Americans passing as white. Troubled by how light-skinned Snow and dark-skinned Bird may be compared to one another, Boy sends her light-skinned stepdaughter away to live with Arturo’s sister, Clara, banished by her family because she was too dark to pass. Boy’s decision—a turn from the expected, indefensible, but born of fierce motherly over-protectiveness—has far-reaching repercussion on both girls in this charged, powerful, and lyrical examination of conceptions of beauty and their perils, one that mothers of daughters may find particularly compelling.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
The page-turner of a novel follows Judd Foxman after his marriage implodes—he walks in on his wife and boss in flagrante delicto—and his father has died. Judd’s mother announces that his father’s request was for the family to sit shiva for him, in Jewish tradition, seven days of mourning during which family members receive mourners wishing to pay their respects. Besides Judd, there are Wendy (who is married to Barry the stereotypical hedge fund guy), Paul (who runs the family business and is struggling to conceive with his wife Alice), and Phillip (the youngest and the family screw up).
Old wounds resurface and rivalries resume over the seven days, along with quite a few gobsmacking revelations. Tropper balances tragedy with hilarity owing largely to punchy sentences, witty dialogue, and at times painfully precise descriptions. And while this is largely Judd’s story, motherhood provides a compelling undercurrent, as Judd’s domineering mother presides over the proceedings, and his sister-in-law goes to disturbing lengths to conceive.
The Bees by Laline Paull
Set in a beehive (yes, you read that correctly), this wildly imaginative novel follows worker bee Flora 717. Flora is born a “sanitation” bee, the lowest caste tasked with serving the needs of the high priority hive dwellers. With a combination of passion and luck, she rises improbably through the ranks to the vaunted role of “forager,” battling wasps, inclement weather, randy drones, and the rigid class system demanded of the bee community.
So how does motherhood fit into this story? In the hive, only the Queen is permitted to reproduce, and the offspring of any other bees, as well as their mothers, are destroyed, quite grotesquely. Without spoiling the plot too much, one of Flora’s transgressions of the social order includes becoming a mother, and she goes to dramatic lengths to protect her offspring. Readers who make it to the end of this novel are rewarded with a satisfying twist that speaks to the power of maternal devotion.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
This complex murder mystery follows Caren Gray, the general manager of an antebellum plantation maintained as a historic site, who is also a descendent of the slaves who worked its fields, and the mother of preteen Morgan. At the story’s outset, the body of a murdered migrant worker is found on the plantation’s grounds, inviting parallels to the 137-year old unsolved murder of one of Caren’s ancestors. Drawn into the investigation, Caren is forced to grapple with her distant and recent pasts and their implications on her daughter’s future.
In addition to being a page-turner on the strength of the plotting, Locke’s novel asks difficult but important questions that defy easy answers—about the conditions migrant workers endure, about what makes a family, and about how much of our history we need to hold on to and what we might need to let go.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Moriarty has deservedly made a name for herself crafting equal parts cutting, hilarious, and heartbreaking portraits of suburban life that revolve around mommyhood. Her latest begins explosively, with a brawl at an elementary school’s fundraising event and the death of a (unnamed) parent. The story then rewinds six months to the chance meeting of three kindergarten moms, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, whose growing bonds of friendship set the tragic events at the fundraiser in motion.
Brassy Madeline is juggling the needs of a blended family: Her husband Ed and their two children, her ex-husband Nathan and their teenaged daughter, who is growing ever closer to her stepmother Bonnie, and Nathan’s young daughter with Bonnie, who will be in the same kindergarten class as Madeline and Ed’s daughter. Meanwhile, Celeste’s perfect life with her husband and twin sons is not the gilded fantasy it appears, and young single mom Jane is hiding a dark secret about her son Ziggy’s parentage. After mild-mannered Ziggy is accused of bullying, battle lines between Madeline, Celeste, and Jane and a rival group of mothers are drawn, and Moriarty leads us up to and through the ill-fated fundraiser while exploring how far a mother will—or should—go to protect and support her children.
Sally Allen is the founder and editor of Books, Ink.