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7 Unforgettable Mother/Child Relationships in Literature

Motherhood is beautiful, exhausting, endlessly surprising, and above all, complicated. Expectations for and the experiences of mothers can change dramatically (and not always for the better) with each passing generation, making for some truly fascinating and moving subject matter for our best novelists working today. The novels collected here feature a wide range of mothers at different times in history, each grappling with what it means in her very specific time and place to love a child and try to keep her or him safe in the world. One of them, Mrs. Bennet, is among the most laughed-at mothers in literary history, but Jo Baker offers the reader a convincing alternate view in Longbourn, a novel that you and/or your reading group will find hard to put down. Another mother, Emilia, in Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, seems almost impossible at first to like or forgive for a number of transgressions ranging from small to life-shattering, but Waldman shows how even a woman clinging to a circle of hell might deserve a slice of redemption from the person you’d least expect to give it. Each of these novels features wildly different plots and characters, but what they all have in common is a complex, compelling portrait of a mother you’ll not soon forget.


 

PleaseLookAfterMomPlease Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

“A suspenseful, haunting, achingly lovely novel about the hidden lives, wishes, struggles and dreams of those we think we know best.” —Seattle Times

When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom? Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.

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AmyandIsabelleAmy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

“One of those rare, invigorating books that take an apparently familiar world and peer into it with ruthless intimacy, revealing a strange and startling place.” —The New York Times Book Review

In her stunning first novel, Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout evokes a teenager’s alienation from her distant mother—and a parent’s rage at the discovery of her daughter’s sexual secrets. In most ways, Isabelle and Amy are like any mother and her 16-year-old daughter, a fierce mix of love and loathing exchanged in their every glance. And eating, sleeping, and working side by side in the gossip-ridden mill town of Shirley Falls doesn’t help matters. But when Amy is discovered behind the steamed-up windows of a car with her math teacher, the vast and icy distance between mother and daughter becomes unbridgeable.

As news of the scandal reaches every ear, it is Isabelle who suffers from the harsh judgment of Shirley Falls, intensifying her shame about her own secret past. And as Amy seeks comfort elsewhere, she discovers the fragility of human happiness through other dramas, from the horror of a missing child to the trials of Fat Bev, the community peacemaker. Witty and often profound, Amy and Isabelle confirms Elizabeth Strout as a powerful talent.

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TwelveTribesofHattieThe Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

“A remarkable page-turner of a novel…spans decades and covers dreams lost, found and denied.” —Chicago Tribune

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of hope, she settles in Philadelphia to build a better life. Instead she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment, and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins are lost to an illness that a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children, whom she raises with grit, mettle, and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them to meet a world that will not be kind. Their lives, captured here in twelve luminous threads, tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage—and a nation’s tumultuous journey.

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CasebookCasebook by Mona Simpson

“Lovely…. Casebook is about a mother’s legacy to her son—important life lessons, well learned.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Nine-year-old Miles Adler-Hart’s mother, “the Mims,” is “pretty for a mathematician.” Miles and his best friend Hector are in thrall to her. When her marriage starts to unravel, the boys begin spying on her to find out why. They rifle through her dresser drawers, bug her telephone lines, and strip-mine her computer. Ultimately, what they find will affect the family’s prosperity—and sanity.

Burdened with such powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil, and proceed to concoct hilarious modes of revenge on their villains. Casebook brilliantly reveals an American family coming apart at the seams and, simultaneously, reconstituting itself to sustain its members through their ultimate trial.

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LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker

“A triumph: a splendid tribute to Austen’s original but, more importantly, a joy in its own right.” —The Guardian (London)

The servants take center stage in this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice. While Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters fuss over balls and husbands, Sarah, their orphaned housemaid, is beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When a new footman arrives at Longbourn under mysterious circumstances, the carefully choreographed world she has known all her life threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. Mentioned only fleetingly in Jane Austen’s classic, here Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Regency England and, in doing so, uncovers the real world of the novel that has captivated readers’ hearts around the world for generations.

Longbourn also sheds fascinating light on one of the most derided and misunderstood mothers in literature, Mrs. Bennet. But Mrs. Bennet was no fool, as Jo Baker makes clear. She’s a realist desperate to save her daughters from a life of destitution, and therein lies one of the most interesting parent/child relationships in fiction.

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LoveandOtherImpossiblePursuitsLove and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

“A romantic, shocking . . . page-turner [that] actually says something new and interesting about women, families and love.” —The New York Times Book Review

Emilia Greenleaf believed that she had found her soulmate, the man she was meant to spend her life with. But life seems a lot less rosy when Emilia has to deal with the most neurotic and sheltered five-year-old in New York City: her new stepson William. Now Emilia finds herself trying to flag down taxis with a giant, industrial-strength car seat, looking for perfect, strawberry-flavored, lactose-free cupcakes, receiving corrections on her French pronunciation from her supercilious stepson—and attempting to find balance in a new family that’s both larger, and smaller, than she bargained for. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is a a can’t put-it-down novel about motherhood, paralyzing guilt, and the sisterhood that mothers can feel for one another even when they’re at odds.

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A_MercyA Mercy by Toni Morrison

“Spellbinding…. Dazzling…. [A Mercy] stands alongside Beloved as a unique triumph.” —The Washington Post Book World

In the 1680s the slave trade in the Americas is still in its infancy. Jacob Vaark is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Rejected by her mother, Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, and later from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives.

A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart, like Beloved, it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter—a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment.

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