10 Memorable Mom-Daughter Relationships in Books

by Molly Labell

Daughters, Mother’s Day is upon us! What do you love about your mom? My mom (hi, Pegs!) is one of the smartest people I know and has a killer sense of humor. To celebrate the holiday, I usually get her a card and either a Civil War historiography or the latest celebrity tell-all, which are her favorite kinds of books to read. (Thank God Meryl Streep hasn’t ever written a book about Gettysburg; there’s no way I could top that.)

Mother-daughter relationships are what drive some of the most notable literature out there. What's portrayed in the pages isn't always all sunshine and daisies, sure — but the ups and downs of mom-daughter interaction can often lay the framework for a great read. Or, in the case of what follows below, a ton of great reads. I mean, just look: Beloved. The Joy Luck Club. Blue Nights. Need I say more?

In honor of the Mother's Day holiday, here are 10 of the most memorable mother-daughter relationships in books. Some will make you smile, some will make you wince, but, invariably, they'll probably all make you want to give Mom a call. Go right ahead.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

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Astrid is barely a teenager when her poet mother, Ingrid, is sent to jail for murder. Astrid bounces from around in foster care, where she faces physical abuse and neglect from foster mothers she hates and heartbreak from the only one she loves. When Ingrid’s chance to be released from prison relies on her daughter’s testimony, Astrid has to decide whether or not to abandon the mother who abandoned her.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

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Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel follows 14-year-old Lily and her African-American maid, Rosaleen, as the two settle into life with a trio of bee-keeping sisters. The two have run away together, Lily from her abusive father, and Rosaleen from the racism in their southern town. Lily’s been haunted by the legend of her mother’s early death and seeks out the bee-keepers on a hunch that they know something about her mother’s history. She’s right, and learns more about the mother she misses, but learns, more importantly, that motherly love can come from other places.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

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Tan’s 1989 novel (and perennial book club fave) follows a group of immigrant Chinese women living in San Francisco and their American-raised daughters. Each woman is given space in the book to assess their own mother-daughter relationship, and the results are moving and breathtaking.

The Wholeness of a Broken Heart by Katie Singer

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After 20-year-old Hannah’s mother suddenly severs their close relationship, Hannah turns to the other women in her family for help understanding why. She finds answers through her grandmothers, as they reveal her mother’s heartbreaking history, and learns about the differing (and tragic) experiences in her Jewish immigrant family.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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Not the happiest story of motherly love, but one nonetheless. The novel follows Sethe, a slave who kills her young daughter rather than have her face a life in slavery. Years later, when Sethe is free, a mysterious woman comes to live with her and her community is convinced she’s the ghost of the murdered child. Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece won her a Pulitzer Prize and a permanent spot in just about every “Best Books of the Century” list.

Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson

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You may have already seen the Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon starring version of this 1987 novel, but the book is just as much of a tearjerker, and even more developed. Teenaged Ann and her mom, Adele, move from Wisconsin to Los Angeles to follow Adele’s delusional dreams of making her daughter a star. They struggle when they get there — Ann has no interest in Hollywood, and Adele can barely make ends meet. Simpson’s novel is a beautiful portrait of a daughter who is both resentful of and in love with her flighty mother.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

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As one of the most prominent American essayists, Didion is no stranger to writing wrenching, personal pieces about her life. Blue Nights is an exceptionally honest examination of her grief after her daughter’s early (and dragged out) death.

For You, Mom, Finally by Ruth Reichl

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Reichl spent six years as the New York Times restaurant critic and ten as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet: she knows food. Reichl’s first book, Tender at the Bone, focused on her life-long love affair with cooking and is peppered with hilarious anecdotes about her mother, a notoriously terrible cook. Her mother is at the center of For You, Mom, Finally; after reading her diaries and letters, Reichel comes to terms with her deceased mother’s life-long unhappiness (and possible mental illness) and the complicated relationship they had.

Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel

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Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home, explored her tense relationship with her father and their dysfunctional family. In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel turns her attention to the equally complicated relationship with her mother, a cold woman that she draws and dissects with psychoanalytic insights.

Then Again by Diane Keaton

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Keaton’s Annie Hall persona might be the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl on film, but her memoir shows a much more human and grounded side. It’s a split memoir, though, a tale of her and her mother, Dorothy, who led a rich and sometimes dark inner life while trying to raise her family. Through reading her mom’s diaries, Keaton realizes the sacrifices Dorothy made for her and that she couldn’t have succeeded without her.

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