Despite all the advice out there on maintaining family relationships, we all hit moments where nothing seems to help. This can be especially true with our moms. Between the unconditional love, the lifetime bond and the years of shared experiences—good and bad—things are bound to get sticky at some point.
When this happens, it’s usually helpful to take a step back to let things settle. The right book can help you reset so you can come back to the relationship from a new, more empathetic perspective. But before you turn to the self-help section, consider consulting a work of fiction.
“Novels I have found to be personally helpful are those where the main character is able to see her mother in a more nuanced way and understand the forces that shaped her mother, which then leads her to see herself in the same way,” said Karen C.L. Anderson, author of “Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters: A Guide for Separation, Liberation & Inspiration.”
Here’s a list of nine great books that feature mothers and the mark they leave on their children as they struggle toward understanding one another.
1. “Room” by Emma Donoghue
Jack and his mother have lived in one room for his entire life. For Jack, the room represents safety and comfort. But for his mother, it’s a prison she’s been trapped in since she was kidnapped at 19 years old.
Together the two learn how to survive the darkest of circumstances while the story explores just how far a mother will go to protect her son.
2. “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson
After their mother takes her own life, Ruth and Lucille grow up under the care of their grandmother, great aunts and aunt.
The story shows what it’s like to be passed among mothers when yours is unspeakably absent, and Robinson’s breathtaking writing illuminates this struggle in heartbreaking light.
3. “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells
Set in the iconic South and mystifying coastal Northwest, this story follows the journey of Sidda Walker trying desperately to unravel the conundrum that is her mother.
She sifts through a history of loss, addiction, abuse and unbreakable sisterhood to uncover the sticky past that shaped her mother and herself.
“It points to the generational evolvement that must happen in order for healing to take place,” Anderson said. “Sidda allows herself to be cracked open by her mother’s suffering and to feel compassion for her mother and ultimately herself.”
4. “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness
Grappling with his mother’s cancer, Conor begins experiencing visits from a frightening monster that appears to live in his backyard. As time goes on, the monster teaches Conor that things are not always what they seem, everything is not always good or bad, and letting go is often the bravest thing you can do.
5. “Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined” by Danielle Younge-Ullman
Before her mother got sick, everything in Ingrid’s life was beautiful. Now everything has changed, including her relationship to her mother, who suffers from depression.
“It’s about the struggle to achieve self-actualization when your role extends far beyond ‘daughter’ and into the realm of ‘caretaker’ or even ‘reason why someone is staying alive,’” said Leila Sales, editor at Penguin Young Readers. “It’s funny and romantic at times, but the ending is a true tearjerker.”
6. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon
Protagonist Christopher has to live with the fact that his mother, one of the few people he trusted, died a premature death—or so he thinks.
As Christopher’s investigation into the death of a neighborhood dog slowly begins to uncover other hidden truths, the extraordinary story about pushing yourself beyond your limits and learning to live with difficult truths unfolds.
7. “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
If your relationship with your mother is rife with unreasonable expectations and family secrets, this is the book for you. It tells the life story of a Chinese American family struggling to live up to a standard none of them can reach. And when tragedy befalls them, they all must unravel the threads that brought them there.
8. “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls
This unbelievably true memoir by journalist Jeannette Walls begins with the story of when she looked out her taxi window in New York City and saw her mother rooting through a dumpster.
Walls didn’t ask the taxi to stop. She knew both her parents had been willingly living a life of homelessness, and the dumpster scene didn’t surprise her. Once you hear the story of her childhood on the run—filled with brilliant episodes of her genius father and free-spirited mother always matched by dark episodes of alcoholism and extreme poverty—it will make perfect sense to you too.
9. “A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza
This critically acclaimed novel tells the story of a family who immigrated from India to California.
“I have been deeply moved by the mother-child relationships portrayed in the novel,” said Maria Akhter of North Atlantic Books.
Along with experiencing the universal struggles and joys of family life, the children are also striving to “balance their culture with their Western identity,” said Akhter. The result is a beautiful book about evolving in the places life takes us and coming home to the families we belong to.
The next time you feel stuck in your relationship with your mom, dive into one of these books. You may be surprised at what you’ll begin to see in your own relationship with your mother by becoming a third-party observer of someone else’s. In the words of J.K. Rowling, “unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced.”