“A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.”
As a clinical psychologist (as well as both a daughter and a mom), I appreciate a good mother joke. Fortunately, we’re (mostly) past the days when all psychological quirks and ills are blamed on the lady who birthed us. Nonetheless, from infancy to adulthood, mother-daughter relationships are endlessly fraught and fascinating. And because of that, they offer the opportunity for some pretty addictive fiction.
From the tightrope walk of maternal expectations to the hidden (or not-so-hidden) traps of generational trauma, from the complicated strain of mismatched personalities and shifting power dynamics to relationships wracked by the scourge of mental illness—it’s all fair game in this particular emotional kingdom. And when it comes to psychological suspense, where the almighty twist is the name of the game, mother-daughter dynamics offer rich terrain. Here are five of my absolute favorite books that mine this area to wonderful effect. They’re well worth a read for countless reasons—even if you’re a hardened skeptic when it comes to the Electra complex:
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Full disclosure: Gillian Flynn has been my literary idol ever since I read this book, her first novel. Her prose is SO pointy, so merciless, and so astute. And I’m gonna go ahead and quote Kirkus’s review here, because it’s pretty much perfect: “A savage debut thriller that renders the Electra complex electric, the mother/daughter bond a psychopathic stranglehold.” The story features Camille, a journalist with some deeply entrenched and intense psychological struggles and (literal) scars, who returns to her hometown to report on the murders of two young girls. Her mother, Aurora, is waiting (along with Camille’s much younger half-sister, Amma) to offer up some of the most chilling family dynamics I’ve ever seen on a page.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
The mother-daughter relationship in Jessica Knoll’s razor-edged debut isn’t central to the plot, but it provides core emotional undergirding for the main character, Ani, who has systematically rebuilt her life after a lurid, blood-soaked trauma (built upon another, secret trauma). There’s an intrepid, grasping sensibility to her mother, who is both determined to steer her daughter right and to elevate her own social and class status. For her part, Ani views her mother as both much-needed support and an object of embarrassment and, increasingly, contempt. And ultimately, as many mothers do (whether willing or not), Ani’s acts as part of an emotional springboard, helping to vault our heroine into an uncomfortable but essential confrontation with herself.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
This suspense novel, set in the ultra-intense world of competitive women’s gymnastics, never sinks into the land of cliché and Dance Moms reality TV. Katie, the mother of Devon, a fiercely disciplined athlete and competitor, is in stunned awe of her daughter’s ability and drive. However, she’s also keenly aware of both the back-breaking pressure on Devon, as well as how possibilities of future success and fame motivate other people in their world, including Katie’s husband, Devon’s father. And when one of their community dies under suspicious circumstances, Katie must reckon with the tension between her own vicariously held dreams, her devotion to her daughter’s wellbeing, and her need to seek out the truth.
The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan
It’s fair to question why this gem is on the list, given that Maria, the mother, is dead at the end of the first chapter (which poses the mystery central to the plot). But the structure of this book, as well as the perspectives of Zoe, Maria’s daughter and one of the main characters, and Tessa, Maria’s sister, give us insight into the determination of a mother to sacrifice for and protect her offspring, shield them from consequences—unearned and otherwise—and sculpt a better future for them, even while daring to hope for happiness in her own life. This intricate story also explores how maturing girls can see their mothers’ vulnerabilities with a poignant, tense kind of insight, limned with both bafflement and gratitude, as they gain strength to come into their own.
Pretty Baby by Marie Kubica
This one isn’t a straight up mother-daughter focused tale, except it also is. In this twisty but grounded thriller, Heidi, who has a twelve-year-old daughter but had deeply hoped to have more children, invites a homeless teenage girl and her baby to stay with the family. Of course, this addition disrupts existing family dynamics in ever-escalating ways, as Heidi’s workaholic husband becomes suspicious about the teenager’s past, and as Heidi’s own psychological pain and thwarted mothering instinct drives her—and the plot—forward … straight over a cliff.
ABOUT S.F. KOSA:
S.F. KOSA (aka Sarah Fine) is a long-time clinical psychologist. She was born on the West Coast, raised in the Midwest, and is now firmly entrenched on the East Coast. The Quiet Girl is her debut psychological suspense. Find out more here: www.sourcebooks.com/books-by-sf-kosa