Skip to Content

It’s Complicated: An Exploration of the Mother Daughter Relationship in Fiction

As much by accident as design, the mother-daughter relationship takes centre stage in several of my novels. I tackled it first in Half-truths & White Lies where my main character Andrea only discovered the truth about her mother after it was too late to ask any questions.

In my novel An Unchoreographed Life the relationship between mother and daughter was loving. The complication was that my mother in the scenario was as prostitute and the ticking time-bomb was that her daughter was reaching the age where she was becoming more aware of the world around her.

In my new release An Unknown Woman I take a different angle, which leads to estrangement. And with publication out of the way, I’ve been thinking about fiction that throws light on this most complex of relationships.

The fact that we prize the mother-relationship so highly places it under immense pressure, sometimes even before it begins. As blogger Natalie Wilson wrote: ‘I wanted a daughter – a girl who would grow into a woman with whom I could fight the feminist good fight, a girl whom I could give the feminist upbringing I never had, a girl who I could let know from Day One was as strong, smart and capable as any penis-privileged human.’ She gave birth to a healthy son.

From an evolutionary perspective, women are hard-wired to compete with each other – their mothers especially. Little wonder, then, that fiction gives us so many examples of tense, intense and downright dysfunctional relationships.



From my bookshelves

The Other Ida by Amy Mason

The-Other-Ida-Cover-650x975Amy Mason’s prize-winning debut portrays daughter, Ida Irons, who has grown up in the shadow of mother, a burnt-out and embittered once-famous playwright called Bridie Adair. Ida lives with the burden of having been named after one of her mother’s characters, which brings an infamy of its own when the play is given a new lease of life by a film-maker. At the age of thirty, Ida, who has lost her way, returns home for her mother’s funeral. It’s the first time she’s been back to her hometown, or seen her younger sister Alice, in fourteen years.

Switching between different time frames, the books offers glimpses of Ida’s childhood and increasingly troubled adolescence, as well as the present day. Young Ida doing her best to care for her little sister. Worrying about Alice’s well-being and insecurities. Growing resentment. Their father leaving home, living nearby with his new wife, and eventually inviting Alice to live with them, leaving teenage Ida to cope alone with Bridie’s dependencies and depression. Ida, swinging between hate and awe of her enigmatic mother. But the particularly poignancy of the book comes from the flaws Mason allows her character. The reader can see all of the ways in which Ida is growing more and more like her mother.

Click here to look inside or buy The Other Ida

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

A powerful story about ambiguous alliances between mothers and daughters, selfish love and cruel behaviour, the search for identity and a fierce White Oldeanderdetermination to survive.

Astrid has been raised by her mother, Ingrid, a beautiful, headstrong poet. But Astrid is barely into her teens when Ingrid is charged with murder and sent to prison. Astrid bounces from one foster home to another, where she faces physical abuse and neglect, and then heartbreak from the only foster mother she loves. When Ingrid’s chance to be released from prison relies on her daughter’s testimony, Astrid has to make the decision whether or not to abandon the mother who abandoned her.

“If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t have to take jobs like this. She would be half a planet away, floating in a turquoise sea, dancing by moonlight to flamenco guitar. I felt my guilt like a brand….”

Click here to look inside or buy White Oleander

Beloved by Toni Morrison

BelovedThe Pullitzer prize winning novel follows Sethe, a slave who kills her infant daughter rather than have her face what she’s had to in a life of slavery. Secrets are peeled back one by one and we come to see how Sethe made the only decision possible for someone in her position. And yet she can’t forget, and the memory torments her.

Years later, when Sethe is a free woman, a mysterious stranger of about the same age as her daughter would have been comes to live with her, and her community becomes convinced she is the Beloved’s ghost.

Morrison’s mastery is in making the universal personal, leading Beloved to be named as the definitive novel on the subject of slavery. It may also be the definitive novel on motherly love.

Click here to look inside and buy Beloved (Vintage Classics)


From Outside the Box: Women Writing Women

Crazy for Trying by Joni Rodgers

Seeking to escape the shadow of her infamous mother—a radical lesbian poet who is larger than life, even in death—Tulsa Bitters, zaftig, bookish and CRAZY 2015freshly orphaned, takes a westbound train, determined to reinvent herself. She gets a job as a late-night disc jockey at a radio station in Helena, Montana. It’s 1979, and people aren’t accustomed to hearing a woman’s voice on the radio, but for Tulsa, far away from all the people who loved and hurt her, midnight rock’n’roll feels like home. Painfully aware that she’ll never be beautiful, she discovers the benefits of being invisible.

With love-struck energy and sharp-tongued tenacity, Rodgers loads up a tight circle of lovers, adversaries, dysfunctional family members and comically flawed friends, driving them down a fresh road through hard-earned love, a dangerous western solitude, and the old sexual politics.

This brave debut novel by bestselling author Joni Rodgers, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Discover Award finalist.

Crazy for Trying is available as part of the Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, a limited edition box-set which is only available until 24 May 2015, and also features my novel, An Unchoreographed Life, and…

Blue Mercy by Orna Ross

blue-mercy-200x300Deliberately provocative, the tag-line on the cover of Blue Mercy asks, ‘Will you side with mother or daughter?’

When Mercy Mulcahy was forty years old, she was accused of killing her elderly and tyrannical father. Now, at the end of her life, she has written a book about what really happened on that fateful night of Christmas Eve, 1989.

The tragic and beautiful Mercy has devoted her life to protecting her daughter, Star, especially from the father whose behaviour so blighted her own life. Yet Star vehemently resists reading her manuscript.

Why? What is Mercy hiding? Was her father’s death, as many believe, an assisted suicide?

Or something even more sinister?

In this book, nothing is what it seems on the surface and everywhere there are emotional twists and surprises. (“Breathtaking, and I mean literally — actual gasps will happen” said one reader review).

From other authors

Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard

The first of Linda’s seven novels, Emotional Geology, deals with the troubled relationship between a forty-seven-year old bipolar textile artist and her estranged Emotional Geologyadult daughter. Part of the reason for their estrangement is the toll mental illness takes on the family, but at the dark, angry heart of their relationship lies a sense of mutual betrayal. Their reconciliation at the end of the book is uneasy. Grief brings mother and daughter together again, but forgiveness still eludes them. This might have been Gillard’s debut, but it takes considerable confidence to leave the relationship hanging.

“I dropped everything to read it. Read it that very night, in fact. In one solid chunk. I had things to do, sleep to get, work to wake up for, and yet none of it mattered and nothing could tear me away from this breathtaking story… I’ve been dreaming of Scotland for the past several nights and I have this book to thank for it.”
ANGIEVILLE (US book blog)

Click to look inside and buy EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY.

I asked Linda to recommend her favourite mother-daughter novel. She said: “Margaret Forster’s, Private Papersis both funny and painful. A widowed mother brings up four daughters alone and records her family’s story as it unfolds. When one of her adult daughters discovers these private papers years later, she’s enraged by her mother’s distortions of the truth and proceeds to tell the story from her own, very different perspective.”

Sail Upon the Land by Josa Young

Sail Upon the Land traces the paths of four generations of mothers and their childrenSail Upon The Land. Born in the Twenties, Sarah is impatient with her own snobbish and inert mother Claire, and is also the mother to the delicate Melissa. She doesn’t realise how fragile her only daughter actually is. Damson is Melissa’s daughter, and has to grows up without her after her early death. Then there is Mellita…. let alone Margaret, a whirlwind of efficiency and planning, ambivalent and expedient, who is Damson’s stepmother, and the mother of identical golden twins Clarice and Eunice.

From crumbling stately mansions in middle England, to the neglected splendour of an abandoned Indian hill station, a story of a family in turmoil starts to unfold. And, as the all too complex relationship between mothers and their daughters is opened up to scrutiny, it shows just how tragically the bonds of motherhood can be eroded. There’s heartbreak, tragedy, and despair but also a beautifully observed understanding of human nature.

Click here to read inside or buy Sail Upon the Land, or visit Josa’s website to find out more. 

I asked Josa to recommend her favourite novel about a mother-daughter relationship. She said:  “My favourite book about mothers and daughters, and a great inspiration, is Mrs Gaskell’s last, unfinished novel Wives and Daughters, in which Molly Gibson has to deal with her deeply flawed stepmother and stepsister after her own mother’s death. I would love to ‘finish’ writing it.” Click here to download it FREE for Kindle.

Nice Girls Don’t by Sue Barnard

Nice Girls Don’t is set in 1982.  The twenty-five-year-old heroine, Emily Fisher, has lived with her aunt and uncle since the death of her parents in a car Nice Girls Don't accident nine years earlier.  Emily’s upbringing had been strict and cloistered, and her relationship with her mother had been rocky at the time of the latter’s death.  Emily struggles to deal with the fact that they had parted on bad terms, but as she discovers more about her mother’s troubled past, she learns that all was not as she had been led to believe.

Click here to look inside or buy Nice Girls Don’t

I asked Sue for her recommendation. She said, ‘May I suggest Kate Long’s wonderful novel The Bad Mother’s Handbook
?’ Both hilarious and wise, it is a clear-eyed look at motherhood – and childhood – in its many guises, from the moment the condom breaks to the moment you file for divorce or, more optimistically, from the moment you hear your baby’s first cry to the moment you realise that there are as many sorts of mother as there are children, and that love sometimes is the most important thing of all.

Unravelling by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn


Vanessa and Gerald first fall in love in the sixties when she’s an art student and he a sculptor. As her tutor, he is a charismatic figure in the young Vanessa’s eyes. Their relationship is passionate, thrilling, sexy. They marry and Vanessa pictures them as the glamorous couple of the art world. Reality is different. They have children and Gerald’s personality and artistic talent soon eclipse Vanessa’s. He belittles her early attempts at fashion design. Eventually he leaves.

Suppressing her heartbreak, Vanessa makes a new life for herself with Andrew and her children. Her design business thrives. However, Gerald can’t stay away, and Vanessa finds herself captivated by his magic all over again. He insists she belongs with him and must leave Andrew, so triggering a tragic chain of events that comes to dominate their lives.

Haunted by grief and remorse, Vanessa rejects Gerald, but she never stops loving him. When they are finally reunited, years later, and find the chemistry between them is as strong as ever, they have to come to terms with their past and accept the power of their enduring love.

Through the novel, four generations of mothers and daughters are explored, each one a product of the prevailing culture of the time: Vanessa is fighting for independence as the daughter of a strict Irish mother; Cordelia is the damaged daughter of a divorced mother, and Savannah the feisty daughter of a single mother.

The mother/daughter relationship which is at the heart of the novel is that of Vanessa and Cordelia. Cordelia adored her father and when her parents’ marriage fails, she blames her mother, leading to a strained relationship which lasts long into adulthood. Like many of us, she feels as if her mother is constantly criticising her and that she never comes up to scratch. Then when her father returns later in the novel, Cordelia is angry that her mother has made her peace with him. The mother/daughter relationship has a lot of healing to do! Click here to look inside or buy Unravelling.

San Fairy Anne by Jean Gill

San Fairy Anne spins on three mother-daughter relationships. Sixteen-year-old Else becomes pregnant in war-torn Alsace and her baby daughter is SF Anne new jackettaken from her to be brought up by her dead lover’s family in smalltown Wales. Anne, Else’s second daughter, a  teacher and childless, accepts a job swap and, with it, a mission to find her half-sister. But, instead, Anne locates the next generation: a mother and an abused daughter. Anne has to decide what she owes to her mother’s descendants.

Says Jean, “The book I recommend about mother-daughter relationships is The Lollipop Shoes (Chocolat 2)
by Joanne Harris. It shows a teenage daughter rebelling and being attracted to a bad influence, while her mother is torn between love and jealousy/hatred of her rival – all with a soupcon of magic.”




Looking Past by Katharine E. Smith

Looking Past - Katharine E  SmithIn Looking Past, the key mother-daughter relationship is actually missing as Sarah’s mother has died when Sarah was just eleven years old. The book tells Sarah’s tale from the loss of her mother all the way through to becoming a mother herself. Despite being long-dead by this time, Georgina still manages to find a way to provide some support to Sarah.

Motherhood is very much a central theme in Looking Past, with a section set on a maternity ward, in which we meet a variety of mothers-to-be from many stages and situations in life.

Sarah does acquire an alternative mother figure along the way as well, in the shape of her boyfriend’s mum, Hazel, who is very much the matriarch – a mother of four boys and a successful businesswoman, her relationship with Sarah is interesting as she tries to take control but finds that Sarah is not quite as malleable as she had first thinks.

Click here to look inside or buy Looking Past

On asked about her favourite books depicting mother-daughter dynamics, Katharine didn’t hesitate. “I can’t help but think of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve always been taken by the way Jane Austen draws the character of Mrs Bennet, who will stop at nothing to marry off her daughters to eligible young men. Lizzy are not as easily swayed. Lizzy is clearly frustrating to her mother, for her general behaviour, e.g. to walk alone in the countryside and get – gasp – a suntan, but above all for her determination to marry only for love. I have always loved the scene where Lizzy is speaking to Mr Bennet about Mr Collins’ proposal. Mrs Bennet is convinced that this is the perfect match. No concern for Lizzy’s own feelings, just a safe marraiage to a respectable man with the added bonus of the family estate being entailed to him. Mr Bennet’s view of the matter is this, and I love it: “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

So perhaps fathers aren’t all that easy either!