Mothers Tell Your Daughters

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Mothers Tell Your Daughters

Telling Life Stories in Novels

So many great novels that pass the Bechdel Test (two female characters discussing topics other than men) are about mothers and daughters. Mothers sharing their lives and long lost secrets with their daughters and surrogate daughters. The story describing the bond between two or more women from different generations has been told in many different ways. Whether those women are related by blood or by common experience, each of these novels comes from a different perspective. Not all of the relationships explored are happy or wholly positive, though a lesson is learned in all of them, regardless of the conclusion. From modern classics to new interpretations, there is a novel for everyone in this list.


The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
Much like Tan’s famous novel, The Joy Luck Club, this novel revolves around a strained mother-daughter relationship. Instead of multiple perspectives and women, this novel focuses on one family, specifically Pearl and her first-generation Chinese mother named Winnie. Pearl is a modern American woman who no longer relates to her mother, who calls her to brag about deals on toilet paper. But after the death of a beloved aunt, Pearl, with two daughters of her own, reaches out to her mother. The majority of the book revolves around Winnie telling her own life story and the struggles she went through in her first marriage during World War II in China. Pearl has never heard tales of her mother’s life before coming to America and opens up to her about her own secrets.

Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
This novel highlights the way mothers and daughters often remember events differently. Sidda has memories of a flawed childhood where her mother was closer to her best friends than to her own children. Vivi and her best friends cling to each other, which often crowds out others. When the Sisterhood comes to Sidda's rescue and shares their own stories with her, she realizes she's had a group of women who have cared for her since her birth. This novel shows it does take a village to raise a child and sometimes to save an adult.

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson
This story is a multi-generational tale of motherhood and familial ties. Leia, who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand, constantly talks to “Digby,” her unborn child. Woven together with the drama and problems of her stepsister, she is soon called to Alabama to handle the affairs of her grandmother, Bertie, who raised her. When Leia arrives, she learns more about her family’s past than she ever wanted—like the fact that her grandmother’s constant companion turns out to have closer family ties than they ever realized. Leia gains more understanding for all the women in her life as she and Bertie slowly reveal the true family secrets that change their future forever.

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
This beautifully written novel interweaves stories about a mother and her two daughters who are separated by distance or circumstance. Told from each woman’s perspective, Dreaming in Cuban tells the story of Celia, who lost everything in the Cuban revolution, as well as the present lives of her daughters, Lourdes and Felicia. One daughter has emigrated to New York City, where she struggles to connect with her own daughter. Meanwhile, the other, who stayed in Cuba, deals with her own personal demons that lead her astray. Widely regarded as a modern classic, this novel explores multi-generational family relationships in a thoughtful and compelling way.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
A retelling of Snow White set in the 1950s, this novel explores complications of race and class. Told in nontraditional prose, this modern retelling of Snow White exposes the dynamics between stepmother and stepdaughter. While one of the darker tales in this list, Boy, Snow, Bird is inventive and leaves you wanting more. Very much historical fiction, the reader learns more about the '50s than most novels reveal. It also explores the jealousy and regret that some people keep inside. It does not take the role of motherhood lightly and accurately shows that it isn’t the right path for all.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Written in 1988, The Bean Trees is just as relevant 30 years later. Marietta, a young woman from Kentucky, wants to get out of her small town and reinvent herself. Renaming herself Taylor, she is thrown into a new life when a Cherokee child is put in the backseat of her car. Taylor decides to keep the child, who she names Turtle. Later settling in Arizona, the pair meet a young couple who are political refugees from Guatemala. Their stories become interwoven, and through a series of events, Taylor almost loses Turtle. While not a perfect novel, The Bean Trees explores issues happening in the U.S. even todayimmigration, American Indian identity, religion, child abuse and the complexities of the legal system. It explores the bond of a mother and her adopted child as well as the trauma of losing one’s child. Poignant and often heartbreaking, this novel is required reading across the country for a reason.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
A modern-day mystery is revealed through the diary entries of a notorious local woman. Sara Henderson Shea loves her daughter more than anything. So much that she even continues to care for her even when she is no longer her little girlbut something darker. This story explores grief, rage and the love of an adopted mother better than most. Discover by far the most intense mother-daughter relationship in this list. Helicopter parenting looks like child's play compared to the lengths Sara will go to protect her daughter. Literary horror at its finest, The Winter People keeps the reader guessing until the very end and the characters stay with you long after the story is finished.