24 Books Every Mother and Daughter Should Read Together
These fiction and nonfiction reads showcase an eclectic cast of mothers and daughters from past and present. Share the list, and then get ready to devour and discuss.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
This novel was published in 1813, but in the two centuries since, no book has equaled its blend of comedy, satire, social commentary, and romance. Mrs. Bennett is one of the most famous fictional mothers of all time, with a single-minded focus on getting her five daughters married to the most eligible bachelors in their area. As a character, she’s both enraging and engaging.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
This 1989 book was Tan’s first novel, and what a dramatic debut it was. Abuse, rape, hauntings, concubines, drowning, poisoning, starvation, abandonment, racism, child prodigies—these are just some of the many plot points covered in the book. The title refers to a regular mahjong game played by three older Chinese women, all immigrants to America, along with the daughter of a fourth. Tan deftly captures the voices of old and young alike, and she movingly conveys their longings and fears.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
This 2011 nonfiction book describes the child-rearing philosophy of Yale University law professor Chua. She demanded excellence from her two daughters in all matters—when 4-year-old Lulu gave her a handmade birthday card that Chua deemed it subpar, she handed it back to her child and ordered her to produce a better, more thoughtful card. When older daughter Sophia did not get the highest score in her class on a math quiz—she got only the second-best grade—Chua ordered Sophia to take 20 practice tests every night for a week.
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
While Pa might be in the (wagon) driver’s seat, Ma is the one who holds the pioneering Ingalls clan together as they journey West to secure a homestead. She is a moral force (the family looks to her to know what’s right and wrong) and a practical one (she can make mouthwatering meals over an open fire out of prairie chicken, jackrabbit, and whatever else Pa catches). And while she’s not the kind of mom to shower her daughters with hugs and kisses, her children know that love lies within every gesture of hers. Yes, this is a children’s book, but with her soft-spoken voice covering a steely personality, Caroline Ingalls is about as grownup a character as you can get.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Set in the post-Civil War period, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book follows slave Sethe after she flees the Kentucky plantation where she was held to live a free life in Ohio with her family. Beloved is the name of Sethe’s 2-year-old daughter, whom Sethe murdered rather than have her claimed by her master, and Beloved appears in Ohio to haunt Sethe and her living children as they struggle with the traumas of the past. Cheerful, it’s not, but this book is one of the masterpieces of 20th century fiction—helping Morrison win the Nobel Prize in 1993—and Sethe-Beloved’s relationship is like no other.
Mommy Dressing by Lois Gould
This 1998 memoir by a woman about her fashion designer mother, Jo Copeland, is a gem: brilliant, precise, and sharp. Although forgotten today, Copeland was once called “the Chanel of America.” The subtitle is “a love story, after a fashion,” and the book captures a daughter’s love for a distant, workaholic mother and her mother’s love for style and beauty. It also contains Copeland’s exquisite sketches and designs.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
To cope with the loss of her beloved mother and the end of a marriage, Strayed threw herself into self-destructive behavior. But when she hit rock bottom, she—without any training or experience—decided to strap on an 80-pound backpack and set off to hike the 2,500-mile long Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed’s journey along the trail and back to a healthier life makes for a vivid, honest, unsparing, and, ultimately, inspiring memoir.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
A longtime TV writer and producer, Semple most recently worked on Arrested Development. Like that sitcom, this novel contains quirky characters and unusual occurrences. Brilliant architect Bernadette Fox has disappeared from her Seattle home, leaving behind her distracted tech whiz husband and bereft 15-year-old daughter Bee. Bee searches for her mother, and her quest is relayed in the form of emails, reports, transcripts, and other documents. It’s a fast, fun, and funny read. Despite the novel’s outlandish details, anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider will be able to relate to Bernadette and Bee.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
In this intense drama set after World War I, a rowboat containing a dead man and a living child washes ashore on an island off the coast of Australia. Living on the isle are an upright lighthouse keeper, Tom, and his grief-stricken wife, Isabel, who has suffered through two miscarriages and one stillbirth. Tom wants to turn the baby over to the authorities, but Isabel takes the little girl’s arrival as a gift from God. The couple and their new daughter, Lucy, live in happiness for a while, but conflict erupts after Lucy’s mother is found to be alive. A battle erupts over who has claim to Lucy. This is a gorgeously written book with deeply relatable characters who find themselves torn between their hearts and their consciences.
‘The Charm Bracelet’ by Viola Shipman
This cozy novel tells a sweet story of remembrance and reconnection for three generations of women: flamboyant grandmother Lolly, buttoned-down mom Arden, and artistic granddaughter Lauren. Lolly always wears a bracelet with charms bought to commemorate special memories and milestones in her life. Using the charms, she shares never-before-revealed stories with Arden and Lauren, bringing them all together. Even though it’s set in the present day, the book delivers an old-fashioned message about the importance of family values.
American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales
For this nonfiction book, journalist Sales interviewed more than 200 teenage girls across the U.S. who opened up to her about technology’s impact on their lives. For anyone who is not a teen, this book provides an eye-opening if alarming look at the ever-shifting landscape of communication, feminism, criticism, sexuality, and individuality in the 21st century.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
This thoughtful novel is perfect for mothers and daughters who like to swap murder mysteries. African-American heroine Caren Gray is not your usual policewoman, P.I., or FBI agent protagonist. The single mom has a highly unusual job: she’s general manager of a historic plantation in Louisiana. And Gray is linked to the plantation in two other ways. Her mother had been a cook there, and her ancestor was once enslaved on the premises. After Gray finds the body of a murdered undocumented farmworker on the grounds, she gets pulled into the investigation. She also becomes increasingly preoccupied with probing the mysterious death of one of her ancestors. Locke dexterously combines a gripping whodunit with an examination of immigration, class, and the ongoing legacy of slavery.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
As soon you and Mom read the first chapter of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, you’ll want to drop everything and read: “My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.” We know these two smart, sensitive, dirt-poor girls growing up in working class Naples in the 1950s will take very different paths, but where will they wind up? Don’t miss Elena Ferrante’s multi-book midcentury saga before these international bestsellers become a series on HBO. These are the books to read after binge-watching Friends.
Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott
Whether or not you and Mom have read Anne Lamott’s funny, piercingly honest longtime best-seller, Operating Instructions, A Journal of My Son’s First Year from 1993, you can still enjoy this “he said, she said” narrative of teen fatherhood from the first sonogram onward. Sam Lamott has inherited some of his mother’s endearingly neurotic humor; for example when his son’s umbilical stump fall off, the young dad panics: “I’ve caught him red-handed—he has clawed open his stomach. Plus it’s all our fault because we didn’t clip his nails.” Here are some ideas for how to help new parents.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Fourteen-year-old Lily Owens has a cruel father and has lost her mother under tragic, ambiguous circumstances. When Lily’s “stand-in mother,” who is black, runs afoul of racists in their small Southern town, the two seek refuge with three wise, African American beekeepers. This is for moms and daughters who like books that reach deep into your heart and give it a good hard squeeze. Here are more great books that will tug on your heartstrings.
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
Once a restaurant reporter at the New York Times, editor of Gourmet magazine, and sometime professional chef, Ruth Reichl learned to cook in self defense; her mother was manic-depressive and served dangerously spoiled meals to family and friends. No wonder, then, that Reichl says, “It is not ‘only’ food…There’s meaning hidden underneath each dish.” A beautiful memoir with glorious recipes that will make you want to run to the kitchen and start cooking up a storm.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Bachman
Seven-year-old Elsa is smart, sarcastic, and “different.” Her only real friend is her outrageous grandmother who spins her fabulous fairy tales every night and who defends her against everyone, include Elsa’s own mother. When Granny dies, she leaves a great many letters of apology for Elsa to deliver, which illuminate their connections to the many other people who live in their housing complex. Like Bachman’s first international best-seller, A Man Called Ove, this is a quirky story about a cantankerous but wonderful old person and the delicate, almost invisible, but ultimately important threads that connect her to others. Want to connect with your neighbors? Here is some inspiration.
Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
At his mother’s funeral, a retired bank manager whose so-called life revolves around his prize-winning dahlias meets his eccentric aunt for the first time. She tells him that his mother didn’t really give birth to him, then refuses to say any more. He’s hooked! Their extravagant, outrageous, and occasionally unlawful adventures take them from London to Istanbul on the Orient Express, as he tries to worm the truth of his parentage from his aunt. Renowned author Graham Greene is never funnier. If you laugh at these dark jokes, you’re probably a genius.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A.J. Fikry is the crabby, introverted owner of the only bookstore on a small island. He has recently lost his beloved wife. But when a young woman abandons her baby in his store and commits suicide, he steps up to the plate and adopts the child. Will it be a disaster—or the best thing that could ever happen?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
No list of this kind would be complete without Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece about Mrs. Ramsay, the kind, serene center of the universe for her four children, brainy, needy husband, and a houseful of quirky guests at their summer house in the first half of the book: “They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that…she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.” In part two, the family returns to the cottage some years after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, and we see how all of their lives have changed in her absence. If either or both of you have already read this book, you’ll know it’s worth revisiting.
Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
In the early 1950s, Jennifer Worth came to London’s grim, poverty-stricken East End to complete her training as a midwife. Stories of the quirky nuns and the other young nurse trainees provide hilarious comic relief. These memoirs are the basis for the hit BBC series, and the show’s much-praised voiceover narration comes directly from Worth’s clear-eyed, lyrical observations of life at its most tender and most sordid.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Do you and your mom like stories about women who break glass ceilings? Hope Jahren is that rare creature, a highly successful female research scientist. She has built her career with the help of a male lab partner…who is not, never has, and almost certainly never will be her boyfriend. Their inspiring, exasperating, indispensable relationship has survived the ups and downs of Jahren’s academic career, her episodes of manic-depressive illness, her marriage, and the rigors of pregnancy without her bipolar meds. In the end you’ll probably covet her lab partner a lot more than her marriage or her career! Want to break those glass ceilings yourself? Try some advice from female CEOs.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Hailed as an “instant classic,” this lyrical yet shocking mystery is set in a small Minnesota town in the early 1960s that seems practically perfect…until the preacher’s daughter goes missing and the seemingly seamless fabric of the town’s life starts to unravel, revealing family secrets from long ago. In the end, the murdered girl’s young brother concludes: “The dead are never far from us. They’re in our hearts and on our minds and in the end all that separates us from them is a single breath, one final puff of air.” We dare you and Mom to put down this book with dry eyes.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler’s funny, charming retelling of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” is set in and around Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Kate Battista’s mother is dead and she’s always trying to rein in her boy-crazy sister. Her dad, a hopelessly absent-minded scientist, is trying to inveigle Kate into a green card marriage with his Russian research assistant who’s about to be deported.