Every family has a certain level of dysfunction—some more than others. And let’s face it, sibling rivalries, overbearing mothers, and absent fathers all make for very compelling fiction. We’ve compiled a list of incredible novels that follow families with issues of their own. From Ian McEwan to Toni Morrison, some of these stories manage to find the beauty in dysfunction, while others simply acknowledge the flaws that are a fundamental aspect of the human condition. And all of them, in their own way, will make you think about what “family” really means.
Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann
“There is a surplus of buried hurt and unspoken disappointments within the Briscoe family. It may be difficult for these characters to realize their flaws and tangled desires, but it sure is pleasurable to read about them…I experienced the characters’ grief and regret as if they were my own.” —New York Times Book Review
An expansive tour de force, Olympus, Texas cleverly weaves elements of classical mythology into a thoroughly modern family saga, rich in drama and psychological complexity. After all, at some point, don’t we all wonder: What good is this destructive force we call love?
“Oddball-brilliant. . . . An innovative work of climate fiction, a nuanced and empathic family story, and, for my money, the summer’s best novel thus far.” —Lily Meyer, NPR
When Nolan Grey receives news that his father, a once-prominent biologist, has drowned off Leap’s Island, he calls on Elsa, his estranged older half-sister, to help. This, despite the fact that it was he and Elsa who broke the family in the first place. Elsa and Nolan travel to their father’s field station off the Gulf Coast, where a group called the Reversalists obsessively study the undowny bufflehead, a rare duck whose loss of waterproof feathers proves, they say, that evolution is running in reverse.
On an island that is always looking backward, it’s impossible for the siblings to ignore their past, and years of family secrecy threaten to ruin them all over again. Yet, despite themselves, the Greys urgently trek the island to find the so-called Paradise Duck, their father’s final obsession, all the while grappling with questions of nature and nurture, intimacy and betrayal, progress and forgiveness.
“A brilliantly crafted family story that moves with the speed and elegance of one of the racing boats it so lovingly describes. . . . It’s an exhilarating read.” —The Washington Times
The Johannssens are a sailing family: adventurous, fanatical, and, for now, a complete and total mess. Ruby, a prodigiously talented skipper, has taken off for Africa. Bernard is god-knows-where at sea. And at thirty-one years old, Josh Johannssen, the middle child, is fixing up an old family boat and trying to figure out where it all went wrong. When Josh’s father coaxes his children home for one last yacht race, the Johannssens find themselves reunited under thrilling circumstances that will change the course of their lives.
“Wit and vibrant characters make The Smart One an engaging exploration of a thoroughly modern family dynamic.” —People
The Coffey siblings are having a rough year. Martha is thirty and working at J.Crew after a spectacular career flameout; Claire has broken up with her fiancé; and the baby of the family, Max, is dating a knockout classmate named Cleo and keeping a very big, very life-altering secret. The only solution—for all of them—is to move back home.
But things aren’t so easy the second time around, for them or for their mother, Weezy. Martha and Claire have regressed to fighting over the shared bathroom, Weezy can’t quite bring herself to stop planning Claire’s thwarted wedding, and Max and Cleo are whispering secrets in the basement. This funny and tender novel explores the ways in which we never really grow up, and the people we turn to when things go drastically wrong: family.
“Elegant, delightful. . . . Shipstead’s sentences simmer and crackle on the page.” —San Francisco Chronicle
The Van Meters have gathered at their family retreat on the island of Waskeke to celebrate the marriage of daughter Daphne to the impeccably appropriate Greyson Duff. The weekend is full of champagne, salt air, and practiced bonhomie, but long-buried discontent and simmering lust stir beneath the surface.
Winn Van Meter, father of the bride, is not having a good time. He is tormented by an inappropriate crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid, Agatha, and the fear that his daughter, Livia—recently heartbroken by the son of his greatest rival—is a too-ready target for the wiles of Greyson’s best man. When old resentments, a beached whale, and an escaped lobster are added to the mix, the wedding that should have gone off with military precision threatens to become a spectacle of misbehavior.
“Powerful. . . . A tale that is as forceful as it is affecting, as fierce as it is resonant.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
At the center: a young woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life, but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love. There is Booker, the man Bride loves and loses to anger. Rain, the mysterious white child with whom she crosses paths. And finally, Bride’s mother herself, Sweetness, who takes a lifetime to come to understand that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”
“A beautiful and majestic fictional panorama.” —John Updike, The New Yorker
On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’ s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives. As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece.
“Warmhearted. . . . Work[s] out who people really are, how ordinary lives can conceal extraordinary stories.” —The New York Times Book Review
London, 1976. In the thick of a record-breaking heatwave, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband has cleaned out his bank account and vanished. Now, for the first time in years, Gretta calls her children home: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, whose blighted past has driven a wedge between her and her younger sister; and Aoife, the youngest, whose new life in Manhattan is elaborately arranged to conceal a devastating secret.
In a story that stretches from the Upper West Side to a village on the coast of Ireland, Maggie O’Farrell explores the mysteries that inhere within families, and reveals the fault lines over which we build our lives.
“The Admissions proves that no cookie-cutter family is as perfect as they seem. . . . Incredible.” —Good Housekeeping
The Hawthorne family has it all: great jobs, a beautiful house in one of the most affluent areas of northern California, and three charming kids. Then comes eldest daughter Angela’s senior year of high school. Suddenly, everyone is floundering. As Angela writes and rewrites her application for Harvard—her father’s alma mater—and struggles to maintain her position as valedictorian, Nora Hawthorne’s career hits a rough patch, taking her away from a newly distracted husband and uncharacteristically anxious younger daughters. And as the secrets everyone has been keeping will come to light, it sets the family on a final collision course that will force them to reevaluate, with humor and heart, the value of achievement.
Tags: Atonement, Before the Wind, CJ Hauser, Family, family drama, Family of Origin, Fiction, God Help the Child, Ian McEwan, Instructions for a Heatwave, Jennifer Close, Jim Lynch, Listicle, Maggie O'Farrell, Maggie Shipstead, Meg Mitchell Moore, Olympus Texas, Seating Arrangements, Stacey Swann, The Admissions, The Smart One, Toni Morrison
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