Two Mother–Daughter Author Pairs for Mother’s Day

This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA. (Mothering Sunday generally falls in March here in the UK, so every year I have to buy a card early to send to my mother back in the States, but I still associate Mother’s Day with May.) Earlier in the year I got over halfway through a Goodreads giveaway book, Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart, before I realized its author was the daughter of a Canadian novelist I’d read before, Jane Urquhart. That got me thinking about other mother–daughter pairs that might be on my shelves. I found one in the form of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees plus an advance e-copy of her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor’s upcoming debut novel, The Shark Club. (I’ve previously reviewed their joint memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates.) And, as a bonus, I have a mini-review of Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday: A Romance.


The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart

From 1986, this was Urquhart’s first novel. Overall it reminded me of A. S. Byatt (especially The Virgin in the Garden) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Set in 1889 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it features characters who, each in their separate ways, are stuck in the past and obsessed with death and its symbolic stand-in, the whirlpool. Maud Grady, the local undertaker’s widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who’ve tried to swim the Falls. Her creepy young son starts off mute and becomes an expert mimic. Major David McDougal is fixated on the War of 1812, while his wife Fleda camps out in a tent reading Victorian poetry, especially Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that may never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her.

Each of these narratives is entertaining, but I was less convinced by their intersections – except for the brilliant scenes when Patrick and Maud’s son engage in wordplay. In particular, I was unsure what the prologue and epilogue (in which Robert Browning, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley’s death by drowning) were meant to add. This is the second Urquhart novel I’ve read, after Sanctuary Line. I admire her writing but her plots don’t always come together. However, I’m sure to try more of her work: I have a copy of Away on the shelf, and Changing Heaven (1990) sounds unmissable – it features the ghost of Emily Brontë! [Bought from a Lambeth charity shop for 20p.]

My rating:


Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart

In December 2010, the author’s first child, Sadie, was born with white hair. It took weeks to confirm that Sadie had albinism, a genetic condition associated with extreme light sensitivity and poor eyesight. A Canadian folklorist, Urquhart is well placed to trace the legends that have arisen about albinos through time and across the world, ranging from the Dead Sea Scroll story of Noah being born with blinding white skin and hair to the enduring superstition that accounts for African albinos being maimed or killed to use their body parts in folk medicine.

She attends a NOAH (America’s National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) conference, discovers potential evidence of a family history of albinism, and even makes a pilgrimage to Tanzania to meet some victims. It’s all written up in as engaging present-tense narrative of coming to terms with disability: to start with Urquhart is annoyed at people reassuring her “it could be worse,” but by the end she’s ever so slightly disappointed to learn that her second child, a boy, will not be an albino like his sister. [Goodreads giveaway copy]

My rating:


The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago that this debut novel was an It book, and harder to believe that I’d never managed to get around to it until now. However, in some ways it felt familiar because I’d read a fair bit of background via Kidd’s chapter in Why We Write about Ourselves and Traveling with Pomegranates, in which she and her daughter explored the Black Madonna tradition in Europe.

It joins unusual elements you wouldn’t expect to find in fiction – beekeeping and the divine feminine – with more well-trodden territory: the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, unhappy family relationships, secrets, and a teenage girl’s coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Lily is an appealing narrator who runs away from her memories of her mother’s death and her angry father, peach farmer T. Ray. You can’t help but fall in love with the rest of her new African-American, matriarchal clan, including their housekeeper, Rosaleen, who scandalizes the town by registering to vote, and the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May, who give Lily and Rosaleen refuge when they skip town.

Although this crams in a lot of happenings and emotional ups and downs, it’s a charming story that draws you into the brutal heat of a South Carolina summer and keeps you hoping Lily will forgive herself and slip into the rhythms of a purposeful life of sisterhood. [Secondhand purchase in America]

A favorite line: “The way people lived their lives, settling for grits and cow shit, made me sick.”

My rating:


The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor

Dr. Maeve Donnelly loves sharks even though she was bitten by one as a child. She’s now a leading researcher with a Florida conservancy and travels around the world to gather data. Her professional life goes from strength to strength, but her personal life is another matter. Aged 30, she’s smarting from a broken engagement to her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, and isn’t ready to open her heart to Nicholas, a British colleague going through a divorce.

Things get complicated when Daniel returns to their southwest Florida island to work as the chef at her grandmother’s hotel – with his six-year-old daughter in tow. Maeve is soon taken with precocious Hazel, who founds the title club (pledge: “With this fin, I do swear. To love sharks even when they bite. When they lose their teeth, I will find them. When I catch one, I will let it go”), but isn’t sure she can pick up where she left off with Daniel. Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced of a local shark finning operation, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.

This is a little bit romance and a little bit mystery, and Taylor brings the Florida Keys setting to vibrant life. It took a while to suspend disbelief about Maeve’s background – an orphan and a twin and a shark bite survivor and a kid brought up in a hotel? – but I enjoyed the sweet yet unpredictable story line. Nothing earth-shattering, but great light reading for a summer day at the beach. Releases June 6th from Viking. [Edelweiss download]

My rating:

Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift

If you’re expecting a cozy tale of maternal love, let the Modigliani nude on the U.K. cover wipe that notion out of your mind. Part of me was impressed by Swift’s compact picture of one sexy, fateful day in 1924 and the reverberations it had for a budding writer even decades later. Interesting class connotations, too. But another part of me thought, isn’t this what you would get if Ian McEwan directed a middling episode of Downton Abbey? It has undeniable similarities to Atonement and On Chesil Beach, after all, and unlike those novels it’s repetitive; it keeps cycling round to restate its main events and points. There’s some good lines, but overall this felt like a strong short story stretched out to try to achieve book length. [Library read]

My rating:

18 responses

  1. How interesting! Writing seems to run in the family for some, then. You’ve prompted me to think about a post on literary marriages/partnerships, although I’m sure that must have been done already. I have a copy of Mothering Sunday on a friend’s recommendation but haven’t read it yet. He hasn’t matched Waterland for me so far.


    1. I couldn’t spot many similarities between the writing of the ladies Urquhart, but I could see how Ann Kidd Taylor’s debut was in the vein of her mother’s.

      This was my first from Swift but I have a copy of Waterland in a box in America.

      I did a post on Literary Power Couples a while back 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! I liked it and commented, too, all of four months ago.


  2. I’ve heard differing things about Mothering Sunday but you’re someone I trust! I loved Secret Life of Bees, and must have read it when it came out. Not sure I fancy the shark one … Nice idea for a post, though. And how annoying to have to buy your Mother’s Day card early as there won’t be any in the shops when you need one!


    1. There are a lot of 5-star reviews out there for Mothering Sunday, but it felt rather insubstantial to me.

      Do you know Kidd’s other work? Invention of Wings is excellent. I’d like to read her spiritual memoirs as well (that’s how she started off).

      Yes, we’ve sometimes forgotten and been forced to buy a generic blank card with a floral design!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought I’d read her other one, but nothing comes up in a search on my blog. I’m definitely going to look out for Travelling With Pomegranates.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great idea for a Mother’s Day post!
    Beyond the Pale is one I would love to read – I’m glad you enjoyed it. Of Jane Urquhart’s books, I’ve only ever read Away, a long time ago when everyone was reading it. Changing Heaven sounds good – I own 5 of her books, but that’s one I don’t have.
    I also read The Secret Life of Bees when everyone was reading it. I’m glad to hear it still holds up.


    1. I think you’ll like Beyond the Pale, especially because she mentions a conversation she had with Michael Crummey about a character of his who is bleached white!

      What did you think of Away? I bought that on a whim from a charity shop last year. I hope I like it better than the other two of her novels that I’ve read.

      Do you celebrate Mother’s Day in May in Canada?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, yes – the guy in Galore!

        I read Away so long ago now, but I remember liking it, but not loving it. I suspect I would probably like it better now, though. I’ve been tempted to re-read it at some point, along with a few of Margaret Atwood’s books that I suspect I’d enjoy more now. It was really popular when it came out, so there’s a good chance you’ll like it better than the other two.

        Yesterday was Mother’s Day! 🙂


    2. The setting of Away does appeal to me.

      Okay, good to know Mother’s Day is the same across North America 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beyond the Pale sounds fascinating! I think I’m going to have to look for that one. And I think I’m the only person who’s not yet read Sue Monk Kidd! Knowing your positive feelings makes me take a fresh look at her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Invention of Wings is even better than The Secret Life of Bees. You can’t go wrong with that one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Annabel (gaskella) | Reply

    I was underwhelmed by the Sue Monk Kidd, but am looking forward to the Graham Swift! You got me thinking about other mother-daughter writers – off the top of my head I can only think of Susan Hill and Jessica Ruston, but have not read the latter.


    1. Oh neat! I hadn’t heard of Jessica Ruston.


  6. […] of my favorite posts from the past year were on World Kidney Day, Mother–Daughter Author Pairs, and Book Hoarding, and my review in verse of Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A […]


  7. […] you’re familiar with Kidd’s other work (such as The Secret Life of Bees and Traveling with Pomegranates), you know that she often explores the divine feminine and […]


  8. […] Eva is an appealingly plucky character, I’d recommend any number of bee-themed novels, such as The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, and even Generation A by Douglas Coupland, […]


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