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The Most Complicated (and Often Dysfunctional) Sibling Relationships in Literature

The Most Complicated (and Often Dysfunctional) Sibling Relationships in Literature

Anyone with a brother or sister can tell you that relationships between siblings can get pretty complicated. They can be competitive and riddled with conflict, while at the same time providing the kind of companionship and understanding that can be difficult to find elsewhere. It’s no wonder that authors often choose to depict the ups and downs of sibling relationships; they offer a vast wealth of emotional depths to explore. We’ve compiled a list of just a few of our favorite novels that examine these unique familial bonds.


Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

“This year’s best book about family.” —The Washington Post

Nora and Theresa Flynn are twenty-one and seventeen when they leave their small village in Ireland and journey to America. When Theresa ends up pregnant, Nora is forced to come up with a plan—a decision with repercussions they are both far too young to understand. Fifty years later, Nora is the matriarch of a big Catholic family with four grown children. Estranged from her sister, Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Until, after decades of silence, a sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago.

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The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

“Chilling. . . . A powerful story of childhood friendship and sisterhood. . . . Dark and compelling.” —BookPage

The Tower Motel was once a thriving attraction of rural Vermont. Today it lies in disrepair, alive only in the memories of the three women—Amy, Piper, and Piper’s kid sister, Margot—who played there as children. They loved exploring the abandoned rooms . . . until the day their innocent games uncovered something dark and twisted that ruined their friendship forever.

Now Amy stands accused of committing a horrific crime, and the only hint to her motives is a hasty message that forces Piper and Margot to revisit the motel’s past, and the fate of two sisters who lived there in its heyday. Sylvie Slater had dreams of running off to Hollywood and becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s leading lady, while her little sister, Rose, was content with their simple life. Each believed the other to be something truly monstrous, but only one knows the secret that will haunt the generations to come.

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The Secret History by Donna Tart

“A huge, mesmerizing, galloping read, pleasurably devoured. . . . Gorgeously written, relentlessly erudite.” —Vanity Fair

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

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Hey Harry, Hey Matilda by Rachel Hulin

“Charming . . . . With wit and finely tuned insights.” —People

Matilda Goodman is an underemployed wedding photographer grappling with her failure to live as an artist and the very bad lie she has told her boyfriend (that she has a dead twin). Harry, her (totally alive) brother, is an untenured professor of literature, anxiously contemplating his dead-end career and sleeping with a student. When Matilda invites her boyfriend home for Thanksgiving to meet the family, she falls down a slippery slope of shame, scandal, and drunken hot tub revelations, which force both siblings to examine who they really are and who they want to be.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

“Poised, haunting, exquisitely effective storytelling. . . . Lahiri is one of our most beautiful chroniclers of the aching disjunctions of emigration and family.” —San Francisco Chronicle

The Lowland is an engrossing family saga steeped in history: the story of two very different brothers bound by tragedy, a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past, a country torn apart by revolution, and a love that endures long past death. Moving from the 1960s to the present, and from India to America and across generations, this dazzling novel is Jhumpa Lahiri at the height of her considerable powers.

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Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

“Wonderfully descriptive. . . . Dunn [has a] tremendous imagination.” —The New York Times Book Review

Here is the unforgettable story of the Binewskis, a circus-geek family whose matriarch and patriarch have bred their own exhibit of human oddities (with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes). The Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the United States, inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.

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The Sister by Poppy Adams

“Masterly. . . . At once beautiful, informative, and disturbing . . . [with] stylish prose, taut plotting and dark psychology.” —The Washington

Born into a long line of distinguished lepidopterists—scientists who study moths and butterflies—Ginny and Vivien grew up in a sprawling Victorian home. Forty-seven years later, Ginny lives there alone, tending to her moths and obsessions amid the ghosts of her past. But when her sister, Vivien, returns to the crumbling family mansion, dark, unspoken secrets rise, disrupting Ginny’s ordered life and threatening the family’s fragile peace.

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