Share Author Picks: 9 Compulsive Reads with Morally Ambiguous Mothers

Author Picks: 9 Compulsive Reads with Morally Ambiguous Mothers

Sarah Vaughan studied English at Oxford and went on to become a journalist. She spent eleven years at The Guardian as a news reporter, health correspondent, and political correspondent. Sarah lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children.   Photograph by Philip Mynott

Sarah Vaughan is the author of Little Disasters and Anatomy of a Scandal. She studied English at Oxford and went on to become a journalist. Sarah lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children.

Little Disasters, my new novel about the darkest reaches of motherhood, begins with a mother overwhelmed by her screaming baby and the sense that this is more than she can bear. The novel explores how the loneliness of early motherhood can fracture a woman’s identity and cause even experienced mothers to take dangerous risks. Much of my book is written from the point of view of Jess, an affluent mother-of-three, who is struggling. While I hope the reader is sympathetic, it’s clear her mothering is less than ideal. 

It turns out I’m exploring fertile ground. Competent mothers don’t often make for compelling literature, while flawed and morally ambiguous ones speak to our darkest fears. If they’re negligent or malicious, it seems we can’t stop reading about them—and if they dare to be sexually active or voracious, we’re even more intrigued and judgmental. Then there are those who, whether through their own frustration, perfectionism, or lack of emotional intelligence, are unintentionally cruel to their children. My character, Jess, has a good excuse. Here, in contrast, are some of the worst mothers in literature: 


Family Upstairs
by Lisa Jewell

Martina Lamb in Lisa Jewell’s number one bestseller THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS is “not the best mum, but not the worst,” and yet she is brainwashed into allowing the charismatic David take over her Cheyne Walk mansion, siphon off her family’s assets, inflict violenceand, ultimately, devastate her family’s life. As she explains to her incredulous son, Henry, when he questions how long the cultish leader will stay: “It’s, well, it’s about me I suppose. It’s about how I feel about myself and how I’ve felt so sad for so long and how all of this, she gestured around her grand bedroom, doesn’t make me happy, it really doesn’t. And then David came and he’s shown me another way. 

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Family Upstairs
Lisa Jewell

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A GOOD MORNING AMERICA COVER TO COVER BOOK CLUB PICK

“Rich, dark, and intricately twisted, this enthralling whodunit mixes family saga with domestic noir to brilliantly chilling effect.” —Ruth Ware, New York Times bestselling author

“A haunting, atmospheric, stay-up-way-too-late read.” —Megan Miranda, New York Times bestselling author

From the New York Times bestselling author of Then She Was Gone comes another page-turning look inside one family’s past as buried secrets threaten to come to light.

Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

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Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

While Mr. Bennet is portrayed as weak by contracting out the pursuit of his daughters’ suitors to his wife, Jane Austen is most savage in her caricature of Mrs. Bennet: “A woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,” obsessed with the financial necessity of getting her five daughters married without a care for their future happiness. (How exactly would Mr. Collins and Lizzy work out?) Snobbish and vulgar, she ensures Jane becomes ill by sending her out in the rain to snare Bingley. But it’s her indulgence of headstrong Lydia that is seen as the most reprehensible since it threatens to bring shame on the family and means the youngest Bennet sister is stuck with caddish Wickham forever. 

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Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen

Enriched Classics offer readers accessible editions of great works of literature enhanced by helpful notes and commentary. Each book includes educational tools alongside the text, enabling students and readers alike to gain a deeper and more developed understanding of the writer and their work.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

The first sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is among the most quoted in literature, and sets up the humorous and ultimately timeless tale of proper English society, unspoken intentions, and true love acquired. Pride and Prejudice is a classic that adeptly traces the intricacies of social status, manners, and relationship rituals in nineteenth-century England, through which all the love between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy eventually blossoms.

Enriched Classics enhance your engagement by introducing and explaining the historical and cultural significance of the work, the author’s personal history, and what impact this book had on subsequent scholarship. Each book includes discussion questions that help clarify and reinforce major themes and reading recommendations for further research.

Read with confidence.

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
by Jeanette Winterson

“My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.” So begins Jeanette Winterson’s ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT. Zealous and hypocritical, Mrs. Winterson beats the young Jeanette when her real mother comes to find her and locks her in the dark with no food for thirty-sex hours when she discovers Jeanette is gay. She then kicks her daughter out with the words: “You’ll have to leave. I’m not having demons here.” 

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Jeanette Winterson

Winner of the Whitbread Prize for best first fiction, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a coming-out novel from Winterson, the acclaimed author of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. The narrator, Jeanette, cuts her teeth on the knowledge that she is one of God’s elect, but as this budding evangelical comes of age, and comes to terms with her preference for her own sex, the peculiar balance of her God-fearing household crumbles.

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Adèle
by Leila Slimani

Leïla Slimani’s eponymous heroine, like Anna in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, has been seen as a modern Emma Bovary whose pursuit of sex compromises her ability to mother. But Adèle is far more narcissistic, and her addiction to often dangerous sex with strangers means she is all too ready to abandon three-year-old LucienLucien is a burden, a constraint that she struggles to get used toAdèle isn’t sure where her love for her son fits in among all her other jumbled feelings: panic when she has to leave him with someone else; annoyance at having to dress him; exhaustion from pushing his recalcitrant stroller up the hill.” 

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Adèle
Leila Slimani

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Author Picks: 9 Compulsive Reads with Morally Ambiguous Mothers

By Sarah Vaughan | September 10, 2020

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Lying in Wait
by Liz Nugent

Reclusive, mercurial, obsessivesnobbish, and obsessed with appearances, Lydia Fitzsimons, manipulates her son, Lawrence, to such an extent she even drugs him to control him. “Motherhood is not a game” she proclaims at one point, adding, chillingly, “I gave birth to him, and therefore he is mine.”  

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Lying in Wait
Liz Nugent

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Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn

Adora Crillen, in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, is, if possible, even more self-absorbed and monstrous than Lydia. “Every tragedy that happens in the world happens to my mother,” states Camille, the narrator and her estranged daughter. The thriller starts with a mother leaving her four young children locked in a rooma limp sort of evil” but Adora’s evil is more calculating, entrenched, and sustained. The victim of an abusive mother herself, the ironically named Adora takes toxic parenting quite literally. 

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Sharp Objects
Gillian Flynn

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Such a Fun Age
by Kiley Reid

Alix Chamberlain in Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age is a white working mother and would-be influencer who breastfeeds her baby while speaking at women’s business forums, but begins to find her child exhausting once she starts to talk. Three-year-old Briar is “constantly asking, singing, rambling, humming, explaining that she liked hot dogs, that she once saw a turtle, that she wanted a high five, that she was not tired at all, and Alix sticks her in front of an iPad or Netflix movie and “practically throws” her at Emira, her black babysitter, who treats the little girl with the empathy and sensitivity she requires. While Alix is satirised for her pursuit of wokeness, and a self-righteousness and envy that sees her meddling when Emira dates her old boyfriend, she is also reprehensible for ignoring her daughter and favoring her quiet baby over the more demanding little girl. “I don’t like it when Catherine bees the littlest favorite to Mama. I don’t like that” Briar confesses to Emira, “with a calm certainty, in the novel’s most poignant scene. This leads Emira to tell her boss, in a go-girl showdown: “You gotta act like you like Briar once in a while. Before she like . . . really figures it out.” 

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Such a Fun Age
Kiley Reid

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Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng

Elena Richardson, in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, is a precursor to Alix Chamberlain, both as a textbook example of white privilege and as a mother perturbed by the emotional messiness of a less-than-perfect childMrs. Richardson is harshest on her youngest, Izzy, “always criticizing her behavior, always less patient with her mistakes and her shortcomings” so that “truth be told she was usually annoyed with Izzy for some reason or other.” In the Hulu miniseries, the reason for this distain is that Izzy is an accident. The novel is subtler, making Izzy an extremely premature baby about whom her mother continues to feel over-protective of and anxious for, causing Izzy to rebel. “Every time Mrs. Richardson looked at Izzy, that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didn’t know how to unclench. . . . Of course, the more Izzy pushed, the more anger stepped in to shield her mother’s old anxiety, like a shell covering a snailMy god, Izzy, Mrs. Richardson said, over and over again, what is wrong with you?’” 

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Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng

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Matilda
by Roald Dahl

The role of mothers in children’s literature is largely to be dead or preoccupied (think Harry Potter, Danny the Champion of the WorldSwallows and Amazons, Alex Rider, Young James Bond) so that the main characters can get up to adventures undeterred. Alternatively, they can be so cruel our child protagonist has to rebel. Nose-picking Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda views her intelligent daughter as a “scab” she can’t wait to throw away. Dahl reveals a strong strain of misogyny in his depiction of the fat, bingo-playing, platinum blonde (with dark roots) who “doesn’t encourage reading books” and resorts not just to TV dinners but meals bought from the chip shop. When Miss Honey offers to bring up Matilda, she agrees with alacrity. 

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Matilda
Roald Dahl

Forced to put up with crude and distant parents, Matilda takes refuge in her love of reading. She expects school to be different but there she has to face Miss Trunchbull, a kid-hating terror of a headmistress. When she is attacked by the Trunchbull she suddenly discovers she has a remarkable power with which to fight back.

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