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9 Books Featuring Fascinating Mother-Daughter Relationships

These novels and essay collections explore the complex bonds between women and their moms

spinner image images of mothers and daughters along with The Book of Mothers by Carrie Mullins
AARP (Source: Macmillan Publishers (1), Getty Images (4))

Was there ever a more extraordinary and complex relationship than that between mothers and daughters? Arriving just in time for Mother’s Day, a new book explores that unique bond, which can be beautiful, toxic and everything in between: The Book of Mothers: How Literature Can Help Us Reinvent Modern Motherhood by Carrie Mullins (May 7). Mullins, a journalist and parent of two young sons, looks at mothers in classic novels, including Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Beloved and Heartburn, and how readers’ understanding of these women has been shaped by our evolving culture. Take Marmee from Little Women. Viewed as “sweet, sexless, pious and adept with a needle and thread,” Mullins writes, yet also — people forget — mad as hell. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” Mrs. March says to daughter Jo.

It’s complicated, being a mom (or a daughter!).

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Below we offer eight more books featuring fascinating mothers and their children. The descriptions below include Mullins’ take on how motherhood is portrayed in The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and L.M. Montgomery’s classic, Anne of Green Gables.

spinner image Joan is Okay by Weike Wang; Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson; Leaving by Roxana Robinson; Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry
AARP (Source: Penguin Random House (2), W.W. Norton & Company, Simon & Schuster, Getty Images (4))

Joan is Okay by Weike Wang (2022)  

​Named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, NPR and many others, Joan is Okay features the indelible Chinese American heroine Joan, 30-ish and contentedly working in a frenetic New York City hospital. When her dad dies in China, her mother returns to America. Unable to speak much English, she’s totally dependent on Joan and her brother Fang. Then the pandemic hits, making it impossible for Joan’s mom to leave. Can this very different mother and her difficult daughter find peace? Part of the pleasure in reading this novel is finding out. 

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson (2022)

This absorbing, best-selling novel (turned into a Hulu limited series last year) is about a mother’s complicated history, which her children discover after her death. The Caribbean-born matriarch, Eleanor Bennett, has a son, Byron, and estranged daughter, Benny, who are given an audio recording she left for them. They listen as she spins a remarkable story about a young swimmer named Covey and a tragic incident that changed the course of her life and the lives of others. She also tells her children that she has baked a traditional Caribbean black cake and left it for them in her freezer, adding, “I want you to sit down together and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.” Eventually, after receiving the shock of their lives about their mother, they do. 

Leaving by Roxana Robinson (2024)

This novel offers a rhapsodic look at late-in-life love that considers an extra element: What happens if your adult daughters do not approve? When past-middle-age and just divorced Sarah reconnects with her college love, Warren, who’s still married, sparks fly, and they tumble back into romance. They plan a whole new life together, but each of their adult daughters gets involved — one going so far as to give Warren an ultimatum. If he chooses Sarah, he’ll never see her again. What do we owe the ones we love? Should we ever have to choose a potential husband over a grown daughter?  

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Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry (1975) 

​An obvious pick, maybe, but how could we leave out this heartbreaking novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry? Emma and her mother couldn’t be more different — or as it turns out, more alike. Widowed scamp Aurora flits from suitor to suitor, all the while believing she knows how to best live her willful daughter Emma’s life. When Emma is left raising her children with little support from her husband, then Emma gets cancer, the two women must confront and heal their relationship. The novel went on to become a classic Oscar-winning film starring Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine. Just keep the tissues handy — whether you’re reading or watching this wrenching tale.  

spinner image Listen to Your Mother edited by Ann Imig; Mother-Daughter Murder Night by Nina Simon; The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan; Anne of Green Gables by L/M. Montgomery
AARP (Source: Penguin Random House (3), HarperCollins, Getty Images (4))

Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now by Ann Imig (2015) ​

Does Mother really know best? The answer in Imig’s wise, witty and heartfelt collection, is — it depends. Although it’s not entirely about mothers and daughters, this book is a real gem, in which 56 very different mothers, including the writers Jenny Lawson and Jennifer Weiner, offer an eye-opening compendium of advice that encompasses the full scope of what it means to parent. The essays take on, among other issues, special needs parenting, single parenting, foster parenting, stepmothering, surrogacy and those who steadfastly choose to never become a mother.

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Mother-Daughter Murder Night by Nina Simon (2023)  

On the lighter side, there’s this savvy, fast-paced and fun thriller, in which businesswoman Lana Rubicon leaves her beloved big city for a small town to recuperate from a bout with cancer. She settles in with her adult daughter, Beth, and her teenage granddaughter, Jack. It’s boring as all heck for Lana until Jack finds a dead body while kayaking and becomes a murder suspect. All three women band together as amateur sleuths to sift through the lies to discover the truth — and grow closer along the way.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)

Mothers of daughters have a difficult job. How do you prepare your child for the reality of being a woman? Can you protect her from being over-sexualized, dismissed or even treated as a second-class citizen? In The Joy Luck Club, Tan explores this challenge through four mothers, all immigrants from China, who are desperately trying to steer their American daughters toward a better life. One by one, their plans backfire: The mothers push their girls too hard, alienating them or, worse, making them feel as though they are not good enough as they are. Where Tan shines is in her empathy — for the daughters but for the mothers, too — in the face of this herculean, all-too-familiar task. (Read our recent interview with Tan on Members Only Access.) —C.M.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)

In this classic novel, we encounter Marilla Cuthbert — quiet and reserved, with no experience around children. When she accidentally adopts a sweet but impulsive and disaster-prone girl named Anne (thinking that a boy was coming to help with the farm instead), we instinctively brace for the worst. Montgomery knows this, and what’s so compelling is how she upends our expectations. Every time Anne gets herself into trouble, Marilla stands back, quietly offering support without getting sucked into Anne’s frenzy. Mothers and daughters can be uniquely heightened to each other’s moods, but in the Cuthbert house, there is no escalation, no one-upmanship. Marilla becomes the perfect mother for Anne precisely because she doesn’t match Anne’s emotions, but rather gives Anne space and time to have them. —C.M.

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