As James Joyce once wrote, “Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not.” Sweet, right? While we’d agree that many of the most memorable mothers in contemporary literature (some real, some fictional) tried their very best to love their progeny, in most cases it just didn’t turn out so well — for either side. Check out our list of memorable moms, and be sure to add anyone who we’ve left off in the comments.
Flowers In The Attic by V. C. Andrews
It’s a good thing that Corinne Dollanganger is one of the fictional mothers on our list (although there are rumors that this horror novel is based on a true story), because she’s certainly one of the worst. As a new widow, Corinne returns to her estranged family’s home with her four children. But there’s a catch: in order to stay there, she has to keep the kids hidden away from her father (who is also their dead father’s half-brother) in the attic. Things are fine, given the situation, until one day she stops visiting them for an entire year. Later, the kids discover that she has both remarried and been trying to kill them with poisoned powdered doughnuts in order to inherit her father’s money.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
When we first meet Laura Brown in Michael Cunningham’s novel, we learn that she is the wife of a World War II vet, and reading Mrs. Dalloway in bed instead of planning his birthday party. Already pregnant with her second child when she barely has the energy (or desire) to pay much attention to her first, Laura feels trapped into playing a role that she’s no good at. After the embarrassment of an ugly birthday cake and an awkward kiss with a female neighbor, Laura drops her son off at the sitter’s house, checks into a hotel with her book, and plans to commit suicide. Instead, she ends up abandoning her family and moving to Canada.
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
In Mary Karr’s memoir about her childhood in 1950s small-town Texas, the focus is often on her trigger-happy mother Charlie, a “Bohemian Scarlett O’Hara,” whose binge drinking, multiple marriages, and psychotic episodes eventually drove Karr to leave home at age 17 with a pack of surfers bound for California. (As Mary so dryly puts it, “Your mother’s threat of homicide–however unlikely she tries to make it sound — will flat dampen down your spirits.”) The weird part is even when Charlie is pointing a gun at her two little girls, you can’t help but be transfixed. As she would say, she’s fun to be around.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel, which took home the Whitbread Prize for best first fiction, tells the story of a middle-class girl named Jeanette (!) who is struggling to come to terms with her homosexuality — in spite of the moral objections of her religious community. When her Old Testament-loving adoptive mother discovers that she’s a lesbian, she throws away all of Jeanette’s belongings and tries to exorcise her daughter’s inner “demon” by starving her for 36 hours straight in a church-led intervention. Luckily Mother’s religious devotion, and as a result, cold cruelty, is no match for Jeanette’s passion, and in the end, only makes her a stronger person.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
It’s fitting that Philip Roth opens his novel with a description of his protagonist’s mother: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” Sophie Portnoy is the archetypal Jewish mother, landing on this list thanks to a devotion to her son that is so extreme that she requires him to show her his bowel movements. Simply put, she is proof that it is possible to love someone too much.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
In Pat Conroy’s semi-autobiographical novels details from his abusive childhood usually make a guest appearance; here, we meet Lila Wingo, a status-hungry woman who is so judgmental and emotionally abusive toward her kids that one of them ends up as a suicidal adult. At the root of her family’s dysfunction is a dark family secret: When her twins were only 13-years-old, three escaped convicts broke into their home and raped them all. Her older son shot two of the attackers, while Lila stabbed and killed the third with a kitchen knife.
Push by Sapphire
As those who saw the recent film adaptation of this novel can attest, Precious’ mother is a total nightmare. Both mentally and physically abusive, she subsists off of welfare money (including payments intended to support Precious’ first child, who does not live with them), and hasn’t left the house in years. She expects her Precious to do all of the cooking and cleaning, and would rather her collect welfare than go to school. Worst of all: Precious’ mother knew that she was being raped by her father, and instead of doing something about it, she started to sexually abuse her daughter as well.
by Augusten Burroughs It could be argued that the nicest thing that Deirdre, Augusten Burroughs’ mentally unstable, Anne Sexton-wannabe of mother, ever did for her son was ditching him at her therapist’s house — until you meet said therapist’s bizarre extended family of biological children, other adoptees (including Neil Bookman, who is 33, and becomes a 13-year-old Augusten’s lover), and mental patients. Narcissistic and overmedicated, she’s more concerned about cultivating her sexual relationship with a teenage girl and writing bad, confessional poetry than she is her son’s well being. In the end Deirdre accuses Dr. Finch of raping her during one of their treatment sessions, and tries to force Augusten to take sides; instead, he flees to New York City.
The Ticking Is the Bomb by Nick Flynn
Nick Flynn’s previous memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
, explored his difficult relationship with his alcoholic, ex-con father. In this one there’s a longing to connect with his mother. As he writes: “If I tell you that my mother had a problem with painkillers, that she worked nights as a bartender, that she dated a gangster, what goes through your head? If I say that the pills were for migraines, that she also worked at a bank, that she never missed a day of work, that I grew up feeling loved by her, that sometimes still I meet the old gangster for lunch when I’m in Boston, do these facts still fit your idea of her? If I say that it doesn’t matter to me if you get a clear picture of her or not, that even if I could somehow bring her back, let you sit across from her, ask her questions, you would still have no idea who she was. I barely knew her, yet I knew her completely.” Sadly, she shot herself in the heart when he was 22, sending Nick into a decades-long depression.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
In Janet Fitch’s coming-of-age novel, a girl named Astrid is placed into foster care after her mother, Ingrid, is charged with his murder and sentenced to life in prison. (The result of a very bad breakup with a womanizer.) While in various homes, Astrid is shot at and winds up hospitalized, experiments with being a small-time hooker, gets bitten by a pack of dogs, is starved to the point where her period stops, and even witnesses a foster mom commit suicide. When it turns out her false testimony could help set her mom free, she also discovers that when she was younger, Ingrid left her with a babysitter named Annie for over a year — which would explain her abandonment issues.