Depicting mothers has always been a challenge that authors were willing to accept throughout history, particularly in adult fiction. They can be portrayed as the “ideal” mums, the ones that get everything right and do no wrong, but more often than not the most interesting mothers are those who are struggling in some way, that have conflicting feelings towards motherhood, that are afraid of failing, or that try incredibly hard to protect their offspring, occasionally to no avail.
In the latest years, I read some books that made me ponder on the importance that motherhood plays in stories. The mothers in Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, The Muse and The Confession by Jessie Burton are all dissimilar. Nevertheless, they have a huge relevance in the plot of the novels they are a part of, even when they are not the main characters.
If you have not read the novels I mentioned previously, I warn you that I’ll allude to some occurrences that may be considered spoilers.
Motherhood, grief and fear in novels
The geatest desire of some of the mothers featured in books is to keep their children safe. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a historical novel about the events surrounding the death of William Shakespeare’s son. The famous playwright is never mentioned by his name, though. This story about grief, parenthood and love could be about any family. The mother, Agnes, believes that she has some kind of premonitions about what will happen in the future. She had a dream of her in her deathbed with her children near her. There were two of them. She was surprised when she gave birth to three children – Susanna and the twins Hamnet and Judith. Although it was Judith’s health that always concerned her, since she was the weakest of the twins, it was Hamnet who ultimately died at a young age. Agnes’s desperation to keep her children safe is palpable, and her subsequent grief is intensely and believably portrayed.
Circe by Madeline Miller also comprises a mother fearful for her child. Circe, the daughter of Helios, the god of sun, and the nymph Perse, has to learn to deal with the dread of losing her son, Telegonus, who was threatened by the goddess Athena. Despite having never been fully loved by her family, Circe became a competent mother. Her character development is the highlight of this Ancient Greek myth retelling.
Books portraying tricky relationships
The relationship between a mother and her children is not always plain sailing. The main focus on The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante is the friendship between Elena and Lila. However, throughout the four novels in the series (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child), there are various complex relationships between mothers and their offspring.
Elena has a complicated bond with both her mother and her daughters. Elena’s mother seems jealous of her success, not having had the same opportunities, but at the same time, she is eager for her daughter to be respected in their neighbourhood. Elena fears she will become like her mother, while caring deeply for her well-being. She also questions whether she is a good mother herself, since she finds it difficult to juggle having a career and spending time with her daughters and leaves them behind to be with Nino for a while.
Lila too faces trials has a mother. She decides to teach her son to read and write at a very young age, because she wants him to be exceptional, but she becomes apparently disappointed in him as he grows up. The pain she feels after the disappearance of her daughter is of extreme relevance for her future decisions.
The doubts surrounding motherhood is the main topic explored in The Confession by Jessie Burton. Rose, one of the main characters in the novel, is thinking about having a baby with her boyfriend. But does she really want to be a mother? Her father considers this to be the right time to share with her the little he knows about the disappearance of Rose’s mother not long after she was born.
In The Muse, Jessie Burton had already written about a convoluted mother and daughter relationship. Despite it not being at the forefront of the book, it is crucial for the development of the plot. Olive, the daughter of an Austrian art dealer and an English woman, doesn’t have the best of relationships with her mother, but it only gets worse when Isaac Robles gets in the middle.
Have you read books that delve into motherhood recently? Tell me in the comments!