The best books to plumb the gnarly depths of motherhood

Why am I passionate about this?

As a writer, reader, and human, I’m drawn to complex stories about motherhood. It’s something we can choose, or something that can be forced upon us. Our relationships with our own mothers shape our entire lives. For my book She’s Not Home, I spent a lot of time deepening Sheryl, the mother’s, character. Early versions of the manuscript received criticism for her being too easily villainize. Too two-dimensional. Readers wanted a complex, heartbreaking character. I went to a very painful place to give Sheryl a richer voice. Here are a few books I love that also face the pain and complexity of motherhood and mothering head-on.

I wrote...

She's Not Home

By Lena George,

Book cover of She's Not Home

What is my book about?

Sheryl already lost one daughter by being the fun parent. She’s determined to do it right with her other daughter, no matter how much Mariana whines about one chance for a normal night. No misbehavior, no stoner friends, and no parties. Sheryl knows real tragedy—and she’s not about to make the same mistake twice.

But all Mariana wants is to escape the shadow of her sister Sheena. She’s tired of being seen as the daughter that survived and missing out on experiences she shouldn’t have to fight for—like senior homecoming. So when Mariana discovers the truth about how Sheena died, she runs away. For the first time, Mariana is faced with the reality of making her own choices, while Sheryl is left to contend with losing another daughter.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Motherest

Lena George Why did I love this book?

Seemingly abandoned by her own mother after the loss of her brother, eighteen-year-old Agnes confronts what it means to be a mother when she becomes pregnant in her first year of college.

This is such a heartfelt book. A lot of the story is told through Agnes’ diary-like letters to her absent mom. I love this form because at Agnes’ age I wrote many undelivered letters to loved ones. Iskandrian captures so many complex feelings in deceptively simple lines, many of which I highlighted to read again later.

This is a poignant story about motherhood, family bonds, and the ways female friends can mother each other in times of need.

By Kristen Iskandrian,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Motherest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It's the early 1990s, and as a new college student, Agnes is caught between the broken home she leaves behind and the wilderness of campus life. What she needs most is her mother, who has disappeared once and for all, and her brother, who left the family tragically a few years prior. As Agnes tries to find her footing, she writes letters to her mother to conjure a closeness they never. But when she finds out she is pregnant, Agnes begins to contend with what it means to be a mother and, in some ways, what it means to be…

Book cover of Little Fires Everywhere

Lena George Why did I love this book?

Gosh, I can’t even tell you all the mothering-related reasons I love this book without giving away spoilers.

Suffice it to say, Little Fires has at least two complex mother characters with a lot to say about our responsibilities to our children and ourselves. I thought of Elena Richardson a lot when writing Sheryl’s character in my book.

Even when we sacrifice most of ourselves to do everything “right” as mothers, the end result can still be calamity and loss. It doesn’t get much gnarlier than that.

By Celeste Ng,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Little Fires Everywhere as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The #1 New York Times bestseller!

"Witty, wise, and tender. It's a marvel." -Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train and A Slow Fire Burning

"To say I love this book is an understatement. It's a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection. It moved me to tears." -Reese Witherspoon

From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You and Our Missing Hearts comes a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their…

Book cover of The Precious Jules

Lena George Why did I love this book?

I love the way this book peels back the layers of a mother’s choices and the scrutiny she faces for them.

Hillary Jules, the mother at the center of this story, does things some might find unforgivable. And yet we see, through both her and the woman who becomes a surrogate mother figure to one of her children, how we cannot know the full depth of another’s story.

This book reminded me how dangerous it can be to judge from the outside with phrases like “I would never.” Those judgments came much easier before I became a mother myself.

By Shawn Nocher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Precious Jules as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Beautifully written...a great book club pick!" -- Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author

A deeply felt family narrative that examines the fine line between selfishness and what passes for love.

After nearly two hundred years of housing retardants, as they were once known, the Beechwood Institute is closing the doors on its dark history, and the complicated task of reassigning residents has begun. Ella Jules, having arrived at Beechwood at the tender age of eight, must now rely on the state to decide her future. Ella’s aging parents have requested that she be returned to her childhood home,…

Book cover of It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs

Lena George Why did I love this book?

I don’t even think I was through the first chapter before I cried over this book.

Mary Louise Kelly writes frankly and poignantly about the nature of time as it pertains to raising children. She does not apologize for being good at her job, nor for the essential part of herself who needs to be immersed in it.

At the same time, she is unsparingly vulnerable about the tradeoffs: the times, good and bad, she has missed with her kids. As a writer who couldn’t stop writing to be a full-time parent if I tried, Kelly’s words resonated with me from the first page to the last.

This memoir is a gift to ambitious, big-hearted moms everywhere.

By Mary Louise Kelly,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked It. Goes. So. Fast. as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Instant New York Times Bestseller

“This voice-driven, relatable, heartfelt and emotional story will make any parent tear up.”
―Good Morning America, “15 Delightful Books Perfect for Spring Reading”

Operating Instructions meets Glennon Doyle in this new book by famed NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly that is destined to become a classic―about the year before her son goes to college―and the joys, losses and surprises that happen along the way.

The time for do-overs is over.

Ever since she became a parent, Mary Louise Kelly has said “next year.” Next year will be the year she makes it to her…

Book cover of The People We Keep

Lena George Why did I love this book?

I loved this novel about chosen family.

April, the young woman at the center of the book, strikes out on her own without a mother to guide her. She finds surrogates in some older female friends, but even as she seems to settle down with a found family you can see she doesn’t understand herself as worthy of unconditional love.

Faced with becoming a mother herself, April doubts she is up to the task. She also doubts she deserves the friends who stand ready to support her. This is a moving story about the people who will love us no matter what we’re going through.

By Allison Larkin,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The People We Keep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Little River, New York, 1994: April Sawicki is living in a motorless motorhome that her father won in a poker game. Failing out of school, picking up shifts at Margo's diner, she's left fending for herself in a town where she's never quite felt at home. When she "borrows" her neighbor's car to perform at an open mic night, she realizes her life could be much bigger than where she came from. After a fight with her dad, April packs her stuff and leaves for good, setting off on a journey to find a life that's all hers.

You might also like...

Rewriting Illness

By Elizabeth Benedict,

Book cover of Rewriting Illness

Elizabeth Benedict

New book alert!

What is my book about?

What happens when a novelist with a “razor-sharp wit” (Newsday), a “singular sensibility” (Huff Post), and a lifetime of fear about getting sick finds a lump where no lump should be? Months of medical mishaps, coded language, and Doctors who don't get it.

With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling artistry of an acclaimed novelist, Elizabeth Benedict recollects her cancer diagnosis after discovering multiplying lumps in her armpit. In compact, explosive chapters, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity, she chronicles her illness from muddled diagnosis to “natural remedies,” to debilitating treatments, as she gathers sustenance from family, an assortment of urbane friends, and a fearless “cancer guru.”

Rewriting Illness is suffused with suspense, secrets, and the unexpected solace of silence.

Rewriting Illness

By Elizabeth Benedict,

What is this book about?

By turns somber and funny but above all provocative, Elizabeth Benedict's Rewriting Illness: A View of My Own is a most unconventional memoir. With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling skills of a seasoned novelist, she brings to life her cancer diagnosis and committed hypochondria. As she discovers multiplying lumps in her armpit, she describes her initial terror, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity as she indulges in "natural remedies," among them chanting Tibetan mantras, drinking shots of wheat grass, and finding medicinal properties in chocolate babka. She tracks the progression of her illness from muddled diagnosis to debilitating treatment…

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