Mothers in Novels: Five Memorable Ones

Reading novels reminds us that there are all kinds of mothers, some of whom would never inspire a Hallmark card.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here are capsule summaries of five novels whose main character is a mother. Some of the novels will make you wish its leading lady had been your mother. Others will make you immensely grateful for the mother you had.

Three Loves, A. J. Cronin’s 1932 bestseller, is a novel about a woman who views herself as selflessly devoted to her family. The family views her as selfishly controlling. What happens when the devoted wife and mother realizes her devotion is rejected makes for riveting reading.

The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland  is novel for puzzle lovers. The novel follows four children as they attempt to carry out, against the wishes of their two mothers, marital plans made one summer afternoon under an apple tree. One of the mothers is the formidable owner of Maitlin Iron Works. The other is an equally formidable genteel widow. As to which is the better mother, there’s no contest. Readers must decide which of the two is the stronger.

The Family by Nina Fedorova (1940) is the story of a Russian emigrant family living in China in 1937. When the Japanese invade China, the mother has to decides to send the children off to what she can only hope will be a better life. Then she picks up the pieces of her life, and builds a new family in Tientsin.

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes was not only a bestseller two years in a row, but garnered the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Its leading lady, Jane Ward, leads an unremarkable life. Always comfortably well-off, she makes a happy marriage and has three children. In the 1920s when her children are grown and have children of their own, Jane reflects on her life and wonders if she made the right choices.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden takes a ‘sixties look at a mother whose life is not all that different from Jane Ward’s, but who makes different choices.

Published by

Linda G. Aragoni

I make big ideas simple for learners. In eight sentences, 34 words, I taught teens and adults to write competently. Now I'm writing guides to turn willing volunteers into great nursing home visitors.

2 thoughts on “Mothers in Novels: Five Memorable Ones”

  1. Your plot summary of “The Family” leaves something to be desired. The mother does not decide to send her children away as war approaches (in 1937). Her daughter, Lina, is with her at the end of the book, hoping to join her boyfriend Jimmy in the US. Her older nephew, Peter, becomes a Russian patriot and returns illegally to the Soviet Union. Her younger nephew, Dima, is adopted by a rich English widow and taken to England. He is the only one who can be said to have been sent away. All the characters in “The Family” are very sharply outlined, so that the reader can usefully speculate about what will have become of each one (the Grandmother dies half-way through). The author, Nina Fedorova, lived in China in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but stated that “The Family” was not an autobiographical novel.


    1. Thanks for sharing your insights, Emilie.
      I had intended to indicate that the mother decides she has to be willing to let her children leave, rather than that she decides to get rid of them. I certainly could have worded that better. (And I spotted a typo, too. Mea culpa.)
      The Family is one of the novels I have marked to reread after I finish my 100 years of bestsellers.


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