9 Books on the Complexities of Mother-Daughter Relationships

Vanessa Hua, author of ‘A River of Stars,’ on all the hardship and joy of mothering daughters

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After I became pregnant, after I gave birth, after I nursed, I felt as if I’d stepped through a threshold, into another world of emotion, of ideas, of experience that I hadn’t known and was eager to explore in my writing. While I might have been able to pull off the voice of a parent before becoming one myself, motherhood has expanded my view, opened my heart and my fiction in ways I didn’t foresee.

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I’d never before shape-shifted like that, and had never been so aware of my animal body than in the violence of birth, in the struggle to breast-feed, and in the sleep interrupted again and again. But the experiences were more than visceral. The curiosity and wonder of my children — experiencing rain for the first time, playing with language to express themselves — made the world new for me again. Becoming a mother also made me reconsider my own childhood and my mother, and what she had to weigh in the choices she made.

My debut novel, A River of Stars, examines motherhood, immigration, and identity through the lens of a pregnant Chinese woman who makes her way to California to stake a claim to the American dream. What follows here are works that also explore the complicated relationships between mothers and their children, in all the sacrifice, struggles, and joys.

Brass by Xhenet Aliu

Fierce, funny, and unforgettable, mother Elsie and daughter Luljeta attempt to make their way in a world that circumscribes them again and again. Their double, working-class coming-of-age stories resonate with each other. Even when they make questionable decisions, you cannot help but root for them in every moment.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Chula, a sheltered young girl, and her maid, Petrona, each have secrets they are keeping from their mothers — secrets that in turn forge the bond they have with each other. But secrets will also tear their world apart, in this story told in a lush, distinctive voice.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

A deeply engrossing memoir about adoption and motherhood and the meaning of family. When Chung is expecting her first baby, she wonders what questions her daughter will have about her their family’s history and heritage — prompting her to search for her birth parents, a process painful, beautiful and ultimately hopeful.

Grace by Natashia Deón

A mother’s love endures, even after death, when Naomi, an escaped slave, watches over her daughter Josey — and later on, Josey’s children. Much violence, but much tenderness too, about an era whose injustices resonate today.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

A big-hearted novel with a multigenerational cast that centers around a Chinese restaurant famed for its Peking duck. The relationship between the manager, Nan and her dishwasher son, Pat is by turns tender and tortured and hilarious, and so too the owner Jimmy Han with his mother. The characters are skillfully rendered, empathetic but revealing of their foibles too.

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling

With her Turkish husband in limbo overseas, unable to return to their home in San Francisco, Daphne flees with her daughter, Honey, to a remote secessionist stretch of California. With wit and wonder, Kiesling writes about the intense love that Daphne has for her toddler, but never shies away from depicting the frustration and tedium of parenthood.

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Phoebe Lin is haunted by the death of her beloved mother. Her boyfriend, Will Kendall, who struggles to help on his own, becomes obsessed with Phoebe even as she falls ever deeper under the spell of a mysterious cult. It’s an aching and lyrical book about loss and love and faith, a page turner that will have you spell-bound, and that you’ll find yourself immediately re-reading.

We Should Never Meet by Aimee Phan

Eight powerful interlinked stories about families torn apart by the evacuation of thousands of orphans from Vietnam to American at the close of the war. Unforgettable, poignant and clear-eyed, and timely as we consider the latest refugee crisis and the separation of families at the border.

One Child: the Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment by Mei Fong

In this fascinating investigation, Fong, a journalist, uncovers the impact of massive social engineering and how the one child policy has shaped China, with heart-wrenching stories of women caught up in policies that restrict their reproductive freedoms.

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