Contemporary fiction focusing on mothers is vast and varied, ranging from explosive to heart-breaking, compelling to painful, frustrating to exquisite. Yet most top-ten lists offered by any internet search are massively out of date, focusing on greats such as Mona Simpson, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, and Marilyn French. Although these authors, and many others, have produced monumental tomes, explorations that no reader will forget, offering us the gift of Marmee and Molly Weasley, making us cringe at the likes of Margaret White and Cathy Ames, it’s time for a major update. As the saying goes, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
As an eager enthusiast of this theme–my recently published novel being a case in point– I feel both equipped and compelled to right this wrong.
The following list of recent fiction bravely that takes on one of the most complex and essential characters in all of our lives, Moms, delves into the meat of its manifestations—boldly including the psychotic, the controlling, the selfish, and the helpless; those who suffocate and hover, those who don’t want to mother, those who can’t mother either for technical or emotional reasons and those who haven’t managed to crawl out from under the shadow of their own mothers enough to be effective ones themselves. Although it is not comprehensive, the field of works growing exponentially, it offers a sense of both the variety and complexity of the genre in its most contemporary manifestations.
Primarily dating to the last decade, the books on this updated list include mothers responding to challenges and realities distinct to our modern age: children who question their gender assignment, children oppressed by social challenges exacerbated by social media, children abandoned by their mothers just when they most need an anchor, and children with multi-cultural backgrounds struggling to define their identity.
The labels assigned are not meant to limit, but instead, to direct–ushering the reader into the extremities of mothering that define our brave new world.
Modern Mothers in Contemporary Lit:
–the psychotic: Ashley Audrain’s The Push. Violaine Huisman’s The Book of Mother.
–the unhinged: Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar. Douglas Stewart’s Shuggie Bain. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.
–the eternally mysterious: Nadia Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This. Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom.
–the indignant: Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves. Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers.
–the deceased: Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, Gina Sorell’s Mothers and Other Strangers; Katherine Center’s, Things You Save in a Fire. Liz Moore’s, Long Bright River. Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt. Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose. Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations.
–the maligned: Joyce Maynard’s Count the Ways. Lynn Steer Strong’s Want. Naima Coster’s What’s Mine and Yours.
–the misguided: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Gina Sorell’s The Wise Women.
–the substitute: Susan Meissner’s The Nature of Fragile Things.
–the perfect: Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had. Sam Hell’s The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. Laurie Frankel’s This is How It Always is.
I welcome any comments and, of course, additions. This list, as admitted above, is just the beginning. Mothers is one theme that just keeps on giving.