This week saw the release of cult cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s second work of non-fiction, Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama, a graphic memoir that investigates her relationship with her mother in all its fraught, tender weirdness. We’ve loved Bechdel ever since we read her 2006 memoir Fun Home, about her father’s suicide, and her newest work doesn’t disappoint — it’s at once poignant and goofy, alarming and sweet, and filled with vignettes of mother-child relations that will have you squirming with recognition, no matter who you are. After we zipped through the book, we felt a hankering for more memoirs about mothers, so in case you feel the same way thanks to a certain holiday on the horizon, we’ve collected a few of the best examples in recent memory here. Click through to check out our list, and let us know if we missed your favorite mommy memoir in the comments.
Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama, Alison Bechdel
Bechdel’s second memoir shifts focus from her father to her mother — though of course, these things are all still entwined: in Are You My Mother memoir, she is writing Fun Home, and seeking her mother’s reluctant approval. She discusses her relationship with her mother in depth, as well as her mother’s relationship with her art, which she’d like if it wasn’t so lesbian-y. “I would love to see your name on a book,” her mother says after Bechdel signs a book deal. “But not on a book of lesbian cartoons.” In our eyes, the frustration and universally recognizable sadness inherent in this interaction drives the book.
The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr
Few memoirists are as skilled at writing about anything as Mary Karr, but her first book is one of our all-time favorites. A darkly comic story, Karr writes with Southern charm and bare-faced frankness of her East Texas childhood with a neurotic, pill-popping and oft-wed artist for a mother who always seemed to be filling and draining of near-irrepressible fury. But “with Mother,” Karr writes, “I always felt on the edge of something new, something never before seen or read about or bought, something that would change us.” And change her she did.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has become a celebrated standby of LGBT literature — and with good reason — but we love this incredibly honest and compelling memoir even more. “What would it have meant to be happy? What would it have meant if things had been bright, clear, good between us?” Winterson wonders of her adopted mother, a religious zealot with a cruel streak. But it wasn’t to be, and Winterson recognizes that her childhood made her who she is today — and how to love with open wounds.
The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke
In this eloquent tearjerker, poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke holds our hand through her mother’s death from metastatic colorectal cancer, capturing the strangeness of grief, the desperation of love, and the existentialist dilemma of death. Raw and beautifully written, this cerebral memoir is a must for anyone who has ever suffered a loss.
Lies My Mother Never Told Me, Kaylie Jones
Kaylie Jones, daughter of famous writer James Jones and a larger-than-life mother with movie star looks and a booming, magnetic personality, has written a compulsively readable memoir about growing up, finding her feet, and fighting with the alcohol addiction her parents left to her, her self-absorbed mother sneering over the proceedings.
The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, Jasmin Darznik
When Darznik, who came to America from Iran with her family when she was just three years old, stumbles on a photograph of her mother dressed as a bride next to someone who is not her father, she opens up a reluctant passageway to her family’s history — though at first she refuses, Darznik’s mother begins to tell her the story of three generations of Iranian women, including the tale of her own marriage at thirteen and the daughter she had to abandon.
My Dark Places, James Ellroy
Yes, James Ellroy, the legendary crime fiction writer who penned The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L.A. Confidential, also had a mother. Devastatingly, she was found strangled to death in a schoolyard in California’s San Gabriel Valley when Ellroy was only 10 years old. In this memoir, Ellroy documents his ensuing obsession with sex crimes and homicides, his desperate search for answers about his mother and his dark period of booze-soaked oblivion before he re-emerges. “I want to give you breath,” he promises the memory of his mother. All that and then some.
The Center of the Universe: A Memoir, Nancy Bachrach
Bachrach’s funny, tender debut memoir tells of the boating accident that left her father dead and her bipolar mother with with severe brain damage. The real story, however, is her mother’s recovery, as Bachrach helps her “rise from metaphorical ashes” to re-establish herself — and perhaps find herself somewhere even better than she was before.
Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, David Rieff
In this intensely personal and candid book by Susan Sontag’s son about her life and death, fans of the literary icon won’t be disappointed — the woman is a force to be reckoned with, even in her last days, her body destroyed by cancer. Rieff’s account is a meditation on death in American culture, a son’s love for a mother, and a woman with a fierce flame within her.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir, Jeannette Walls
Though Walls’ wonderful memoir isn’t specifically about her relationship with her mother, but a story about her entire family’s struggle and her parents’ dual insanity, we thought her mother was the standout player. An artist who refers to herself as an “excitement addict,” she’s brash, idealistic and neatly rational, but ends up homeless in New York City — insisting that she is living the way she wants to — and stars in this unique tale of one of the strangest, most wonderful families you’re likely to meet.