Mother's Day Reads: Eight Great Mother Characters in Literature

05/06/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated May 06, 2016

This weekend we will celebrate Mother's Day and all of the special women in our lives. Motherhood -- it's a theme and a topic so often explored in literature. In honor of those real-life female figures in your own lives, why don't you consider picking up a book featuring a rich and inspiring mother figure?

If you're looking for a place to get started, here is my list of "Eight Great Mother Characters in Literature." Enjoy, and Happy Mother's Day!

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
I have to start off the list with Marmee. Mrs. March, mother to the four beloved March girls, passes along her indelible spirit and her life-long quest for knowledge and self-betterment to her daughters. While Father is away serving for the Union in the Civil War, Marmee holds down the fort at Orchard House with her unwavering goodness and her tender but firm brand of maternal strength. Equal parts moral compass, bedside nurse, arbiter of familial disputes, community servant and outspoken feminist born ahead of her time, Marmee's character was hewn in large part from Alcott's own real-life mother, Abigail Alcott. Throughout this classic American coming-of-age story, inspired by Louisa May Alcott's own upbringing in Concord, Mass., Marmee proves a vital presence in heroine Jo March's life, and quickly becomes a reader's favorite character.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Protagonist and (sort of) hero Theodore Decker has this to say about his mother in Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning opus: "Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid: and though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me to someplace happier...Her death the dividing mark: Before and After...I've never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did. Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary." How's that for an anguished maternal musing? You can feel Theo's ache and loneliness seeping off the page, and you yourself weep over his young mother's tragic death. The loss to which Tartt's flawed protagonist here refers is the tragic event that sets the whole novel in motion -- plunging Theo Decker onto a dark and dangerous path straight into the seedy underbelly of the art world, international crime rings, drug dealers, and much personal miscalculation and misfortune.

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The relationship between Victoria and her foster mother, Elizabeth, is as heartbreaking as it is ultimately uplifting and redemptive. And Diffenbaugh's language throughout this tale is as vivid and fresh and original as the floral bouquets that feature so cleverly into her plot. If aster is the bloom given to signify patience, then Elizabeth deserves quite a large bouquet of it, due to the selfless and sage care she shows for her young ward, Victoria, whose traumatic past and personal demons prevent her from accepting the love of the woman who would be her mother.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman
Here it's the absence and lack of maternal love that we feel so strongly, as protagonists and ill-fated lovers Cora and Eddie both ache for their dead mothers in different ways. Hoffman's novel turns on its head, however, when Cora discovers that perhaps her mother never really was the woman whose image she has venerated, in her imagination, for all of these years. And perhaps she's not actually gone at all, but very near indeed...

Becoming Marie Antoinette, by Juliet Grey
Ah, this famous French Queen looms large in history as the quintessentially tragic wife and mother figure. She's a mother who loses her children in the grisly events of the French Revolution, while simultaneously the "children" of her nation -- her discontented royal subjects -- reject her rule and even demand her head at the guillotine. But in Grey's assiduously-researched historical fiction novel, a coming-of-age story of this iconic historic figure, it's Marie Antoinette's mother, Empress Maria Theresa, who reigns over so much of the plot and character development. And how could she not? Grey's Maria Theresa is not only a domineering matriarch to her ill-fated little queen-in-training, but she herself sits on the throne as Empress of Austria. Europe's most powerful ruler and a task-driving mother?! Let's just say this is some serious girl power.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Julie Semple
Bernadette Fox is not your typical mother, any more than this is your typical novel. Semple, the author of this sidesplittingly funny tale, has this to say about her comical and quirky lead character: "Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom." Over the course of this novel, written entirely in the format of emails, letters, memos and other offbeat forms of epistolary, we go on a wild adventure with Bernadette and Bee that takes us from Seattle to Antarctica, and we see how sometimes it's our familial relationships that can drive us crazy -- while also being our saving grace.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Grief over her mother's death is what drives writer Cheryl Strayed first to a troubled and drug-addicted life, and then onto a quest to save and find herself on the grueling terrain of the Pacific Crest Trail. Though Strayed is solo on this excursion, with nothing but her giant backpack nicknamed "Monster" as company, it's clear that her mother is there for every step of those merciless miles. Can Strayed come to peace with her mother's passing and her own rocky past in order to step fully and healthily into her own future? That's the central question that Strayed takes up on the trail and in this raw and personal memoir.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
Your heart can't help but break for Fantine when the single mother can no longer afford to keep her daughter, and she is forced to turn little Cosette over to the cruel guardianship (or more aptly, child slavery) of the innkeepers, the Thénardiers. From there, providing for Cosette becomes Fantine's life-or-death struggle, and like so much else in Hugo's epic novel of 1830's France, we do not get a happy ending. That is, until an unlikely savior emerges in the character of the fugitive ex-convict Jean Valjean, who gives no small measure of peace at Fantine's deathbed by agreeing to act as a father to the helpless girl. From here, Hugo's novel shifts from that of a tragic mother-daughter relationship to the unlikely love of a broken man for his young ward -- and that relationship between Cosette and Jean Valjean becomes one of the few bright and redemptive aspects of this heavy and rich masterpiece.

The Accidental Empress, by Allison Pataki
I could not write a piece about mother figures and neglect the mother figure with whom I've been spending so much time lately -- Empress Elisabeth "Sisi" of the Austro-Hungarian Empire! For this beautiful and iconic heroine from history, motherhood is both the source of her greatest joy and her deepest heartache. Since Sisi marries at sixteen and begins the journey of motherhood at the staggeringly young age of seventeen, we truly watch her grow up as she struggles to raise her own prince and princesses, all against the glittering and dangerous backdrop of the Habsburg Imperial Court.

ALLISON PATAKI is the New York Times bestselling author of the historical novels The Traitor's Wife and The Accidental Empress. She graduated Cum Laude from Yale University with a major in English and spent several years writing for TV and online news outlets. The daughter of former New York State Governor George E. Pataki, Allison was inspired to write The Accidental Empress by her family's deep roots in the former Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary. Allison is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization, ReConnect Hungary. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, and is a member of The Historical Novel Society.