I can’t think of toxic mother-daughter relationships without hearing Joan Crawford screech about no wire hangers! Or remember the sinister Mrs. Coulter in Philip Pullman’s brilliant novel The Golden Compass, trying to lure her daughter Lyra into giving up the precious alethiometer.  (And who was Cinderella’s real mother, anyway, who dumped her into that situation?)

Your mother is the first person you meet, isn’t she? The first voice you hear, the first human being you trust. Little girls watch their mothers, and listen to them, and are guided by them, for better or for worse. Even those who try to escape their influence can never quite be free. 

And then the daughters grow up — or don’t — and their mothers’ emotional legacies become melded into their adult lives. It’s a bond that’s almost magical in its strength. Again, for better or for worse.  

In my book The Wrong Girl, what if an adoption agency is reuniting birth mothers with the wrong children? Would you know your own child? When a daughter suspects the woman she’s just been introduced to as Mom is a fraud — what does she do next? Or maybe she’s the one who’s wrong.

And in my new thriller The First to Lie, the entire plot is set into motion by a devastating childhood betrayal. When a mother insists to her only daughter: “I was simply trying to help, and just trying to do what’s best for you.”

But do mothers always do what’s best for their daughters? We know from fact, and certainly from the fiction on this list, they don’t. And when the mother-daughter relationships go wrong, the danger is profound.

 Sister Dear
by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Sure, Hannah Mary MacKinnon’s riveting thriller is about sisters. But wait till you meet the mom.  She not only understands the mother-daughter relationship, but she knows how to weaponize it. You can’t have sisters without having a mom — and this brilliantly-drawn character diabolically proves it. (Read our review here.)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 The Wicked Sister
by Karen Dionne

Oh yes, there’s no place like home. Did Rachel actually kill her own mother? She honestly believes so — but why would she have done that? And why doesn’t she remember? Karen Dionne’s terrific new thriller delves hauntingly into the relationships between nature and nurture — sibling rivalry, but with their mother set firmly in the middle.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 She Lies Close
by Sharon Doering

Sharon Doering’s obsessively suspicious main character is a mother on the verge of — well, everything. In this upcoming page-turner, what this mom knows and what she fears and how she ferociously protects her children becomes a darkly sinister — and darkly humorous — lesson in modern motherhood. 

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Baby Teeth
by Zoje Stage

I’m smiling even to write about this book — it’s unique and gaspingly dark, and so much fun to read. Zoje Stage takes the balance of power in this mother-daughter relationship and twists it to terrifying levels of suspense and danger. Who’s in charge here? It might have been titled We Need to Talk about Hanna. (Read our review here.)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Mildred Pierce
by James M. Cain

The master of noir James M. Cain published this in 1941, and I still can’t think of a more destructive mother-daughter relationship. Social climbing, manipulation, lies and greed are all part of this certainly doomed “family.” And poor determined Mildred’s daughter Veda Pierce is definitely in the running for being the most hateable daughter in literature. 

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go
by Amy E. Reichert

Three generations. Seven days. One big secret. Did your mom watch every single thing you did? And criticize? (It could happen.) It can be smothering — until she can’t do it anymore. In this touching story, adversity and disaster unlock family secrets that have been hidden for 40 years. Amy E. Reichert allows us — in such a gorgeous way — to see how bad luck can change everyone’s life for the better.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Little Voices
by Vanessa Lillie

Vanessa Lillie’s study of brand new motherhood is touching and compelling. Just out of the hospital, and with her baby Snugli still wrapped around her, this new mom fights her battles emotionally and physically. A mother-child relationship like you’ve never read before — and a chilling character study.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Then She Was Gone
by Lisa Jewell

It’s Lisa Jewell, so you know it will be fabulous. And in Then She Was Gone, the mother, a woman trying to put her life back together 10 years after her daughter disappeared, takes center stage. The oh-so-talented Jewel takes the “where did my daughter go and why” story and makes it absolutely bone-chillingly riveting. 

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Her Daughter’s Mother
by Daniela Petrova

Daniela Petrova mines the emotions of a mother looking for a birth daughter. In Her Daughter’s Mother, an infertile woman becomes obsessed with the young woman who’s willing to make it possible for her to have a child. The donor who is, essentially, her daughter’s mother. A tangle of emotions and a growing obsession make this mother’s and her not-yet-born daughter’s story uniquely riveting.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Don’t Look For Me
by Wendy Walker

In Wendy Walker’s brand new Don’t Look for Me, it’s the daughter looking for the mother — but what if she does not want to be found? It makes sense that a guilt-ridden mom may have decided to leave her tragic past behind, but Walker’s suspenseful study of a family in pain proves mother-daughter love can survive even the worst tragedy.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 Secrets of Worry Dolls
by Amy Impellizzieri

This is the story of Mari, a 9/11 widow, and her daughter Lu. They are hiding painful secrets from each other and battling ghosts from the past. The two are locked in a downward spiral of estrangement until a plane crashes on their street corner. Amy Impellizzieri brings an authentic touch to this emotional journey of eventual connection. 

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

 White Oleander
by Janet Fitch

I have not read it yet, but if the clamor from my writer pals is any indication, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, an Oprah’s book club pick, should be next. I have covered so many stories as a TV reporter about foster children that this is incredibly enticing. Yes, I am late to the book. But when pals say: extraordinary, brilliant, gripping and lyrical? That’s next on my list.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop

In writing this, I tried to think of how Shakespeare spotlighted mother-daughter relationships, and I was perplexed to realize I couldn’t think of any examples. I looked it up and found a scholarly paper written some years ago by an expert who said she’d only found six times where mothers and daughters are on stage at the same time. Maybe contemporary authors are willing to take more chances. Or maybe his mom was reading over his shoulder.