The best books about complicated mother and daughter relationships

Alice Pung Author Of One Hundred Days
By Alice Pung

Who am I?

My parents survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, so their love for us was always tinged with anxiety, fear, and a large deal of paranoia and control. All of my books are about the complex relationship between parents and their children, and the things we knowingly or unknowingly pass down. I’ve also worked a number of years as a university student counsellor, where the same enduring themes play out in my students’ experiences. So naturally, I am drawn to stories that explore difficult but loving family dynamics. 

I wrote...

One Hundred Days

By Alice Pung,

Book cover of One Hundred Days

What is my book about?

In a heady whirlwind of independence, lust, and defiance, sixteen-year-old Karuna falls pregnant. Not on purpose, but not entirely by accident, either. Incensed, Karuna’s mother, already over-protective, confines her to their fourteenth-story housing-commission flat, to keep her safe from the outside world – and make sure she can’t get into any more trouble.

One Hundred Days is a fractured fairytale exploring the faultlines between love and control. At times tense and claustrophobic, it is nevertheless brimming with humour, warmth, and character. 

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The books I picked & why

Hope Farm

By Peggy Frew,

Book cover of Hope Farm

Why did I love this book?

Hope Farm moved me so much because it conveys the bitter-sweetness of being thirteen, being privy to adults who make terrible choices, and having to adapt to the consequences of those choices. It is about parents who join cults (in this case, a hippy one) and the effects of this on their children. Peggy Frew has such a seductive and captivating way of engrossing the reader in the story through her stunning prose.  

By Peggy Frew,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hope Farm as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A devastatingly beautiful story about the broken bonds of childhood, and the enduring cost of holding back the truth.

“They were inescapable, the tensions of the adult world―the fraught and febrile aura that surrounded Ishtar and those in her orbit, that whined and creaked like a wire pulled too tight.”

It is the winter of 1985. Hope Farm sticks out of the ragged landscape like a decaying tooth, its weatherboard walls sagging into the undergrowth. Silver's mother, Ishtar, has fallen for the charismatic Miller, and the three of them have moved to the rural hippie commune to make a new…

Book cover of Things Nobody Knows But Me

Why did I love this book?

Many years ago, because I’d written a book about my family’s experience surviving the Cambodian genocide, a talented author asked if I would mentor her through writing a book about the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict and her mother’s mental illness. The result of this is Amra Pajalic’s extraordinary memoir Things Nobody Knows about Me. Pajalic writes with raw candour about her mother’s bipolar and psychosis and growing up in the economically depressed suburbs of working-class Australia. Despite the horrors and hardships of having to constantly be an ‘adult’ in the parent-child relationship Amra’s memoir is full of humour, life, and love.

By Amra Pajalić,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Things Nobody Knows But Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When she is four years old Amra Pajalić realises that her mother is different. Fatima is loving but sometimes hears strange voices that tell her to do bizarre things. She is frequently sent to hospital and Amra and her brother are passed around to family friends and foster homes, and for a time live with their grandparents in Bosnia.

At sixteen Amra ends up in the school counsellor's office for wagging school. She finally learns the name for the malady that has dogged her mother and affected her own life: bipolar disorder. Amra becomes her mother's confidante and learns the…

Unravelling Us

By Renée McBryde,

Book cover of Unravelling Us

Why did I love this book?

Renee’s father was in jail for murder, and her mother never got over the shame. This book is about family secrets and how corrosive they can be, and also how a child survives a manipulative mother. I was floored by the wild level of pain a parent could inadvertently bestow on their child, but there is also much grace and love in this memoir. 

This book will be available May 2022.

By Renée McBryde,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unravelling Us as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping memoir that reads like a psychological thriller... When Anne wakes in hospital, she is unable to recognise anyone or anything, mistaking herself for a young girl at first. She can talk but cannot remember much, including, as it turns out, the birth of her daughter, her rocky relationship with a man who is said to be her husband, and a mysterious man she feels a deep longing for but is warned against. As Anne tries to recover and piece together what has happened, fragments of memory come back but do little to help and sometimes confuse her further.…

Book cover of The Joy Luck Club

Why did I love this book?

This is the story of mothers and daughters everywhere but with a Chinese flair. And because I am Chinese, I have to include this beloved book! There is such heart and authenticity in Amy Tan’s intertwined stories of friendship and family. It was the first time I’d read something resembling the sort of relationship I have with my own mother, which my friends at school didn’t understand. 

By Amy Tan,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Joy Luck Club as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The Joy Luck Club is an ambitious saga that's impossible to read without wanting to call your Mum' Stylist

Discover Amy Tan's moving and poignant tale of immigrant Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters.

In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters' futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club.

Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers' advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives - until their own inner…

Book cover of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Why did I love this book?

This classic of Asian-American literature is full of fierce women and gentle men, and the first time I understood how powerful a non-linear, semi-mythological collection of stories could be. Maxine Hong Kingston, like Toni Morrison, was not writing to educate a broader readership, but to tell stories relatable to a very specific audience of Asian American readers. For this, I salute her courage and originality. 

By Maxine Hong Kingston,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Woman Warrior as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • With this book, the acclaimed author created an entirely new form—an exhilarating blend of autobiography and mythology, of world and self, of hot rage and cool analysis. First published in 1976, it has become a classic in its innovative portrayal of multiple and intersecting identities—immigrant, female, Chinese, American. 

“A classic, for a reason” – Celeste Ng via Twitter

As a girl, Kingston lives in two confounding worlds: the California to which her parents have immigrated and the China of her mother’s “talk stories.” The fierce and wily women warriors of…

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