The best books featuring transgressive mothers

Eliza Robertson Author Of Demi-Gods
By Eliza Robertson

The Books I Picked & Why

The Days of Abandonment

By Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein

Book cover of The Days of Abandonment

Why this book?

I read this novel feverishly, over a decade ago. Ferrante’s calm, snaking sentences yanked me into this book with a compulsive gravity. After her husband leaves her, the narrator, Olga, struggles to care for her two children. She forgets herself in her daily rounds — driving absently, denting fenders, braking at the last minute — “angrily, as if reality were inappropriate.”

Throughout this novel, Ferrante presents a devastating (yet somehow gratifying) portrait of feminine rage. When I first read this novel, still in my twenties, still generally polite and obliging, I recognized something frightening: the scorn of a woman who’s grown “old” and undesirable for society. A woman with the whiff of aloneness about her. Rage isn’t an emotion we like to associate with mothers, but that’s only one reason this book is subversive and edifying.

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Hot Milk

By Deborah Levy

Book cover of Hot Milk

Why this book?

While Olga’s live-wire, imperfect mothering fuelled me with a sort of righteous approval — or recognition — Rose, the mother in Hot Milk, left a metallic distaste in my mouth. Rose is limp and passive. She is the apparent sufferer of a mysterious bone disease. Her 25-year-old daughter, Sofia, has been lassoed along as “an unwilling detective” of this ailment, as well as her mother’s primary caregiver.

Sofia is her mother’s laundrywoman. Her walking stick. She dares not protest even when her mother rests her head on her shoulder, which is burning from a jellyfish sting. Admittedly, it’s not the mother that tugs me into this book, but Sofia herself. As Sofia explores her own individuation, her own eros, her own obsessions, the story grows increasingly hypnotic and propulsive.

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Why Did I Ever

By Mary Robison

Book cover of Why Did I Ever

Why this book?

Why Did I Ever falls into my favorite genre of fiction, which I will describe loosely as “narrated by a sardonic, wincingly funny, tragic woman.” (See also: Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Lauren Groff, Mary Gaitskill, among others.)

The narrator, Money, is a self-sabotaging script doctor whose daughter, Mev, is addicted to opioids, and whose son is under police protection following a violent assault. 

As a seemingly directionless woman who spends much of the book driving or sourcing Ritalin, Money counts, in my books, as a “transgressive” mother. She’s also charming and likable. This book is dark and deeply affecting at times. At many other times, it’s hilarious. I recommend it to anyone who loves that hinterland — between the tragic and darkly funny.

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By Sara Freeman

Book cover of Tides

Why this book?

Without giving too much away, this book follows a woman who lost a baby. We don’t witness her as a mother, as such. She’s someone whose choices resulted in no child at all. Instead, we witness her in a cavernous, self-destructive funk, in which she leaves her husband and flees to an ambiguous seaside town. 

Here, she drinks too much. She falls asleep in public places. She charms men, just to feel her power over them. And also — she longs for something. Deeply. Like the protagonists in all these stories, she remains somehow absolvable, despite the moments where she does something abhorrent or perplexing. 

If you were to list the protagonist’s transgressions on paper, the character portrait would be unflattering, even loathsome at times. But that’s not how I perceived her. I found myself sympathetic, charmed, and wanting to be her friend.

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A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

By Lucia Berlin

Book cover of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

Why this book?

Many of the characters in this story collection work in unappreciated, underpaid, and unseen labor: as caregivers, nurses, cleaners, switchboard operators, administrators, substitute teachers. The stories are rooted in Berlin’s own experience as a mother, worker, and alcoholic.

A lot of authors are famous for writing “working class” stories — but many of them are men. I love this collection because it centers the story on working-class women, who often happen to be mothers raising their children alone. 

Lucia Berlin didn’t receive much attention as an author in her lifetime, but she writes with a skill, shrewdness, and vulnerability that places her among the very best. While some of the stories in this collection are sorrowful, others are funny, even uplifting. Whether from laughter or sadness, I was frequently moved to tears.

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