Author Picks: My Top 5 Moms of Literature

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Jessamine Chan’s short stories have appeared in Tin House and Epoch. Her first novel, The School for Good Mothers, is a New York Times bestseller and a Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club pick. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.

As you might imagine, I talk, think, and read about motherhood a lot. That’s been especially true since I began writing my debut novel, The School for Good Mothers, back in 2014, and certainly since my book was published this past January. In all my reading, I gravitate toward female characters who push against the boundaries of polite society, whether they’re fighting for change, instigating their own quiet rebellions, or just trying to survive. I love getting inside the consciousnesses of women who are given space to rage, fight, and yearn on the page. When the character is a mother, there is of course an added degree of tension since what our society and culture expect of mothers is often so limited. One of the very best parts of publishing a book is having the opportunity to share my favorites. Here you’ll find a range of literary mothers weathering storms in their own minds, at the end of the world, and across cultures.

Nightbitch
by Rachel Yoder

Yoder’s debut novel is the perfect companion read for anyone who enjoyed THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS. The title character is an artist who has become a stay-at-home mom and fears she’s turning into a dog. As hilarious as its premise suggests, the novel is blazingly smart, moving, and original.

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Nightbitch
Rachel Yoder

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Author Picks: My Top 5 Moms of Literature

By Jessamine Chan | May 5, 2022

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The New Wilderness
by Diane Cook

Would you leave civilization behind for the sake of your family? Set in a world destroyed by climate change, Cook’s debut novel features the thorny and unforgettable Bea, who has left the polluted city and brought her daughter to the Wilderness State, where they and eighteen others must try to survive as hunter-gatherers.

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The New Wilderness
Diane Cook

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Author Picks: My Top 5 Moms of Literature

By Jessamine Chan | May 5, 2022

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The Need
by Helen Phillips

After reading THE NEED, you may believe that every novel about motherhood should really be a horror story. How else can a writer capture the wild swings of emotion, the fear, and the mind-altering exhaustion of parenting young children? I loved being immersed in Molly’s mind and how Phillips wrung high drama out of domestic life.

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The Need
Helen Phillips

***LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN FICTION***

“An extraordinary and dazzlingly original work from one of our most gifted and interesting writers” (Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Glass Hotel). The Need, which finds a mother of two young children grappling with the dualities of motherhood after confronting a masked intruder in her home, is “like nothing you’ve ever read before…in a good way” (People).

When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

In The Need, Helen Phillips has created a subversive, speculative thriller that comes to life through blazing, arresting prose and gorgeous, haunting imagery. “Brilliant” (Entertainment Weekly), “grotesque and lovely” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice), and “wildly captivating” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives and “showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

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The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

THE LEAVERS wrestles with huge moral and political questions within an utterly heartbreaking story of a Chinese mother and son who have been separated and forced to begin new lives, and grapples with the punishing reality of being an undocumented immigrant in America. Ko’s heroine, Polly, is riveting and remarkable.  

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The Leavers
Lisa Ko

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Easy Beauty
by Chloé Cooper Jones

Here, the literary mother is Jones herself—a philosophy professor, journalist, and one of the most singular thinkers you’ll ever read. A memoir combining stories of living in and with a disabled body, navigating motherhood, and traveling the globe in search of answers and meaning, this book promises to make you see the world differently and truly delivers.

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Easy Beauty
Chloé Cooper Jones

“Soul-stretching, breathtaking…A game-changing gift to readers.” —Booklist (starred review)

From Chloé Cooper Jones—Pulitzer Prize finalist, philosophy professor, Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant recipient—a groundbreaking memoir about disability, motherhood, and a journey to far-flung places in search of a new way of seeing and being seen.

“I am in a bar in Brooklyn, listening to two men, my friends, discuss whether my life is worth living.”

So begins Chloé Cooper Jones’s bold, revealing account of moving through the world in a body that looks different than most. Jones learned early on to factor “pain calculations” into every plan, every situation. Born with a rare congenital condition called sacral agenesis which affects both her stature and gait, her pain is physical. But there is also the pain of being judged and pitied for her appearance, of being dismissed as “less than.” The way she has been seen—or not seen—has informed her lens on the world her entire life. She resisted this reality by excelling academically and retreating to “the neutral room in her mind” until it passed. But after unexpectedly becoming a mother (in violation of unspoken social taboos about the disabled body), something in her shifts, and Jones sets off on a journey across the globe, reclaiming the spaces she’d been denied, and denied herself.

From the bars and domestic spaces of her life in Brooklyn to sculpture gardens in Rome; from film festivals in Utah to a Beyoncé concert in Milan; from a tennis tournament in California to the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, Jones weaves memory, observation, experience, and aesthetic philosophy to probe the myths underlying our standards of beauty and desirability, and interrogates her own complicity in upholding those myths.

With its emotional depth, its prodigious, spiky intelligence, its passion and humor, Easy Beauty is the rare memoir that has the power to make you see the world, and your place in it, with new eyes.

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The School for Good Mothers
by Jessamine Chan

THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS is out now!

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough. Until Frida has a very bad day. The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion. Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

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The School for Good Mothers
Jessamine Chan

In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.

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