The best books about motherhood, maternal ambivalence, mother loss, and everything mother-ish in between

Christine Higdon Author Of The Very Marrow of Our Bones
By Christine Higdon

Who am I?

In the acknowledgments in my novel I mention my late mother “who might have wanted to flee, but didn’t.” My pregnant mother driving eight hours down the Fraser Canyon. Baby me “in a cardboard box” in the front seat, my brothers, armed with pop guns, in the back. My dad, having finally found work, gone ahead alone. We didn’t tell this as a story of her courage and strength. It was considered funny. But after I became a mother, I had a clearer vision of the stress and poverty of my mother’s life. My novel, and the ones I’m recommending, show compassion for women as mothers, and for their children, who are sometimes left behind.

I wrote...

The Very Marrow of Our Bones

By Christine Higdon,

Book cover of The Very Marrow of Our Bones

What is my book about?

On a miserable November day in 1967, two women disappear from a working-class town on the west coast. The community is thrown into panic, with talk of drifters and murderous husbands, but no one can find a trace of Bette Parsons or Alice McFee. Ten-year-old Lulu Parsons discovers something though: a milk-stained note her mother left for her father on the kitchen table. Lulu tells no one and for forty years she uses solitude and detachment to live and cope with her mother loss. Finally, at fifty, Lulu learns she is not the only one who carries a secret.

Hopeful, lyrical, comedic, and intriguingly and lovingly told, the book explores the isolated landscapes and thorny attachments bred by childhood loss and buried secrets.

The books I picked & why

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Still Life

By Sarah Winman,

Book cover of Still Life

Why this book?

This wondrous saga about a crew of mostly working-class English folk starts in Italy at the end of WWII, then roves for another three decades between a pub in London and a pensione in Florence. I love Winman’s ability to make us love her characters—and this book is packed with them—no matter their crimes and misdemeanors. In this novel, she rouses only compassion for Peg, who, thinking herself incapable of raising her five-year-old daughter, sends her off to Italy to be brought up by two men. Everything about Winman’s writing says love and humanity and hope. And if you’re into audiobooks, she reads the book herself; it is a brilliant performance.

The Faraway Nearby

By Rebecca Solnit,

Book cover of The Faraway Nearby

Why this book?

The Faraway Nearby is a poetic journey. Solnit reminds us, throughout the book, of the impact and importance of storytelling in our lives. But what I found most compelling and moving on this intensely personal walk with the author was the way in which she wanders here and there to explore many topics but comes back, time and again, to her mother. Stricken with Alzheimer’s, her already difficult mother is initially even more obstreperous. When Solnit’s brother gives her a voluminous harvest of unripe apricots from a tree in their mother’s garden, their ripening presence on Solnit’s floor helps create the path to a place of understanding that takes her beyond the difficult history she has had with her mother.  

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

By Jeanette Winterson,

Book cover of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Why this book?

I first read this brilliant coming-of-age book years ago and was unsurprised to hear it had won the Whitbread Award. Fiction, non-fiction, children’s books—Winterson is one of the cleverest, smartest, and (sometimes) funniest authors I’ve ever read. Even using her own name for the main character in Oranges, is inspired; in a recent introduction to the book she speaks of “self-invention” and using herself as a fictional character. Winterson employs fairy tale, legend, and the first eight books of the Bible to tell this story of a girl adopted by a hardline Pentecostal Christian whose aim is to prepare her daughter to be a missionary to the world. Jeanette’s intelligence and curiosity and her so-called “unnatural passions” send her down a very different path.

Elizabeth and After

By Matt Cohen,

Book cover of Elizabeth and After

Why this book?

I was moved by the profound look into a young man’s grief and guilt and confusion that Canadian author Matt Cohen offered us in this, his last novel. Carl’s mother is dead, killed at the age of 51 in a car accident for which Carl is (mostly) responsible. After the funeral, Carl fled. Now, three years later, he’s back in his hometown, population 684, attempting to start over and reconnect with his seven-year-old daughter. It’s a long, hard fight for redemption in a town where the habitants—a grand cast of them—have long memories of who Carl was and what he did. Matt Cohen died a few weeks after the book won the Governor General’s Prize for English-Language Fiction.

How to Be Both

By Ali Smith,

Book cover of How to Be Both

Why this book?

In modern-day England, a teenager, George (Georgia), has lost her mother. In Renaissance Italy, Francesco del Cossa, a young and talented fresco painter, is motherless as well. Smith gives us a choice: Read George’s half of the book first, or read Francesco’s. Whichever we choose, the lives of these two young people are intricately interlaced. Their sadness and joy; their way of looking at the world around them. George has been to see a fresco in Italy created by Francesco. She is in a complex, post-death conversation with her mother, filled with longing. Francesco (or should that be Francesca?) tells his/her own life story and observes George in hers. I loved the challenging, poetic, playful, and tender nature of this book.

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