One of my favorite types of books is the family drama…dysfunctional or not! And, 2019 has been a spectacular year for family dramas, so what better time than to compile the ultimate list of family drama books!
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Plot Summary: Two NYPD cops, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson move their families next door to each other in a suburb of New York City…setting the stage for a friendship between their two children (Kate and Peter) and a tragic event that causes ripple effects years down the road.
My Thoughts: Ask Again, Yes has been slowly gaining steam over on #bookstagram and I’m thrilled to say it’s worth the hype (5 stars for me)! It’s a character-driven novel that I couldn’t put down…and these particular people struck a chord with me. It’s a coming of age story and an unconventional love story. The beginning reminded me a bit of My Sunshine Away (the neighborhood kids hijinks), while overall, it reminded me of The Female Persuasion (my review) without the feminism angle. This one will definitely be one of my favorite books of 2019! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Josh Johannssen and his somewhat estranged family, a sailing dynasty, reunite in an attempt to win the Pacific Northwest’s prestigious Swiftsure race.
My Thoughts: Before the Wind plops the dysfunctional family element of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth into a sailing environment with brilliant results. Within the first five pages, Lynch delves into the psyche of sailors and boaters in general and his writing about sailing is filled with “yes, that’s exactly how it is” moments. Note: you do not have to be into sailing to love this book…it’s first and foremost a story about a family! Full Review.
Plot Summary: An ill fated christening party is the catalyst that ruins the Keating and Cousins marriages…and creates a blended family trying to navigate their new world.
My Thoughts: Commonwealth is a simply and perfectly told story of a cobbled together family…and is one of my favorite books of 2016! Every member of the blended Keating/Cousins family behaves dreadfully, but I was somewhat sympathetic towards all of them. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Ministers Charles and James are hired to co-lead the congregation of New York City’s Third Presbyterian Church in the 1960’s and their families become inextricably linked despite their different beliefs.
My Thoughts: The Dearly Beloved is a yet another gorgeously written character-driven novel (we’ve been swimming in riches with these this year and I’m not mad about it!) involving two families. The writing style reminded me of Mary Beth Keane’s in Ask Again, Yes (my review). Each character has a very different outlook on faith…making it easy to find at least one person to identify with. And, they all struggle with what exactly they believe for various reasons and they all evolve throughout the book. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Danny and Maeve Conroy grew up wealthy in a castle-like house called the Dutch House, but their circumstances change when their father remarries a younger woman.
My Thoughts: Ann Patchett is one of my all-time favorite authors and she writes family dysfunction better than almost anyone (except maybe Pat Conroy?). And, she’s done it again in The Dutch House with a multi-generational story featuring a single father, neglected children, an evil stepmother, and a house that’s its own character. Patchett explores the ripple effects of a dysfunctional childhood, sibling dynamics, marriage, and letting go of the past. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Lydia, the favorite teenage daughter of a Chinese-American family living in 1970’s Ohio, turns up dead, the family is forced to examine strains that have been lying just below the surface.
My Thoughts: Given the book opens with a doozy of a first line (“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet…”), I was expecting a thriller focused on how and why Lydia is dead. But, Everything I Never Told You is more a story of family dynamics with Lydia’s death as the catalyst forcing each member to examine themselves. It’s also a portrait of what it’s like to be immigrants (and a multi-racial family…dad James is Chinese and mom Marilyn is white) in a town where there is not any immigrant population to speak of. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of the Skinner family – the four Skinner children, their father’s unexpectedly passing in his thirties, their mother’s years long depression (which the children call “the Pause”), and how their lives unfold into adulthood.
My Thoughts: Similar to Commonwealth with shades of My Sunshine Away (my review) in the beginning sections, The Last Romantics can be called a dysfunctional family novel, but the dysfunction is normal enough to be relatable…the type of dysfunction you see in real life all the time. It’s a novel of sibling dynamics and how parenting decisions/style impacts children in later life. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When nomadic artist Mia Warren and her daughter (Pearl) rent an apartment from Elena Richardson in Shaker Heights, Elena’s entire family becomes enmeshed in the Warrens’ lives, resulting in uncovered secrets, unanticipated consequences, and a raging debate about what it means to be a mother.
My Thoughts: Little Fires Everywhere is an engrossing story about a family and a community that you can sink right into…and may have even broader appeal than Everything I Never Told You. I’m a bit hard-pressed to pick out specific things I loved about it…yet, I loved the book as a whole. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Twelve year-old Elvis Babbitt and her family try to make sense of their mother’s unexpected death.
My Thoughts: Despite the serious topic, Rabbit Cake is a sweet, delightful, and whimsical story about a family coming together after a tragedy. The Scout Finch-like Elvis is quirky, endearing, and full of morbid, yet charming humor. I immediately fell in love with her voice as narrator. Plus, check out this first line: “On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.”
Plot Summary: Set in 1980’s Atlanta, the story of James Witherspoon and his two families, his “legitimate” one and his secret one, and his two daughters of the same age, born to different mothers.
My Thoughts: Y’all know how much I loved Jones’ An American Marriage and I think I loved Silver Sparrow just as much! It has a very similar feel to An American Marriage and also takes place in Atlanta. The dynamic between Witherspoon’s two daughters (initially, one is aware of the other, but not vice versa) is fascinating and poignant. I ended up feeling for both of his families…much like Jones made me empathize with all three main characters in An American Marriage.
Plot Summary: When Claude, the youngest son of a family of five boys, starts to realize he wants to be a girl, the family must learn how to best support Claude and adjust to the situation.
My Thoughts: This Is How It Always Is is an accessible story about a weighty topic that had me feeling a whole range of emotions…it’s the kind of book many people will enjoy, yet will also provide excellent discussion for book clubs. It’s heart-warming, but also heart-breaking. It’s unexpectedly funny, sad, inspirational, and made me angry at times. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Daniel Sullivan, a divorced American professor, goes to Ireland to reclaim his grandfather’s ashes, he meets and marries a famous actress (Claudette) who fled her life in the spotlight and was presumed dead.
My Thoughts: This is my first foray into Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction after loving her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am…despite a few quibbles with some minor plot points, I loved it! It feels like an epic (it spans decades, jumps around in time, and is told from multiple perspectives), but it reads easily. It’s a family drama with secrets to be discovered, but I’d say it’s less dark than many dysfunctional family novels I read. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When fifteen year-old Stella Sandell is accused of murdering a wealthy businessman in his thirties, her lawyer mother and pastor father must decide what they’re will to do to save her.
My Thoughts: Told from three perspectives in three sections (Stella’s Dad’s, Stella’s, and Stella’s Mom’s), it reminded me of a cross between Miracle Creek (my review) and Reconstructing Amelia (my review). The evidence tells a different story depending on whose perspective you’re viewing it from, which kept me turning the pages. And, a great pick if you’re tired of thrillers that all seem the same. Full Review.
Plot Summary: A dual timeline story of a Palestinian mother (Isra) and daughter (Deya) growing up in Brooklyn in a household that tried to strictly adhere to traditional Muslim custom (i.e. arranged marriage at a young age, men valued over women, women confined to the home, physical and emotional abuse, etc).
My Thoughts: Let me start by saying A Woman is No Man is a feminist’s worst nightmare…in the sense that women are still treated this way in some cultures even though it’s 2019. I’d heard it was brutal reading before I started it and it was. In addition to being a window into this hidden culture, A Woman is No Man has some suspenseful story hooks that kept me turning the pages. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Alex’s father (a shady businessman) has a heart attack, she rushes to New Orleans to try to learn who he truly was and understand why her mother (Barbra) stayed married to him.
My Thoughts: All This Could Be Yours is one of the darker family dramas I’ve read! The level of family dysfunction is high, but what makes it truly dark are the thoughts and feelings of each of these family members. If you need hope in your books, this probably isn’t the choice for you. The story addresses what happens when someone you’re “supposed to love” is in danger of dying, but you don’t feel the grief you’re “supposed to feel.”
Plot Summary: North Georgia’s Bull Mountain has been run by one family of outlaws (the Burroughs) for generations, but when a federal ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) agent arrives to put a stop to the crime, Sheriff Clayton Burroughs’ family loyalty is tested.
My Thoughts: Brian Panowich’s debut novel is a jaw-dropping (yes, my jaw really did drop multiple times!) multi-generational family saga that feels like Southern “grit lit”, but reads like a thriller. It was one of my favorite books of my Best Books of 2015! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Three years after teenage sisters Emma and Cass disappeared from their home, Cass returns home without Emma and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winters returns to help Cass find Emma.
My Thoughts: Emma in the Night‘s ending has the rare perfect balance between being surprising, yet still fitting with the story and it’s the first 5 star thriller I’ve read since Gone Girl. I could not put this book down! And, I liked it so much better than All is Not Forgotten (spoiler discussion)! If I had the kind of life where I could devote a whole day to reading, I could’ve read it in one day. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of the Latham family – a normal, but not perfect family with teenage children – and the ripple effects of small decisions.
My Thoughts: This is the rare book that combines a booming plot with depth, emotion, and sparkling writing. A central plot point drives the story, but the action really isn’t what this book is about. Quindlen kicks things off with an honest portrayal of a family that isn’t too perfect and isn’t too dysfunctional…they are decidedly average and relatable. But then, something unimaginable happens and the book becomes about how regular people deal with inconceivable events. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Family and friends gather on a small island in New England for the wedding of Daphne Van Meter, who is seven months pregnant, and Greyson Duff.
My Thoughts: The Van Meters (Winn and Biddy are the parents – I mean, get a load of those names!) and Duffs are snobby, New England families that don’t talk about anything unpleasant and fear “inappropriateness” and “social embarrassment” above all else. Obviously, a wedding where the bride is knocked up has the potential for many moments that would send these people into a tailspin. Full Review.
Plot Summary: After a tragic incident forces Kyung Cho’s parents to move in with him and his young family, they are forced to confront Kyung’s unhappy childhood and address long-simmering family resentments.
My Thoughts: Shelter is the perfect balance between action-packed story, well-developed characters struggling with real issues, and gorgeous writing with lots of social commentary…and it was my 3rd 5 star book of 2016! I love dysfunctional family books and Shelter is certainly one of those, but in a dark and serious way. This is decidedly not the “rich siblings fighting over their trust fund” type of family dysfunction (i.e. The Nest). Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Tom Wingo’s twin sister, Savannah, tries to kill herself in New York City, he teams up with her psychiatrist to delve into the family’s tragic history in the South Carolina low country (Colleton, South Carolina).
My Thoughts: Conroy is the master of portraying the beauty and magic of the Carolina lowcountry and I think this is the book where he makes the lowcountry shine brightest. Then he throws a story that is horrifying, sinister, and tragic on top of all this beauty. Not to mention, he pulls much of the horror from his own life and upbringing. The Prince of Tides might be the grandfather of family dramas. Full Review.
Plot Summary: After lucky golden boy Toby gets beaten in his apartment during a burglary, he goes to Ivy House (his ancestral home) to recover and care for his dying uncle Hugo…but, a skull is found in the trunk of a massive elm tree in the garden.
My Thoughts: I consider Tana French a “mystery” author, but The Witch Elm doesn’t start out with a “mystery” feel. It’s more of a family drama / mystery hybrid, which I knew was absolutely up my alley once I aligned my expectations. It’s a mystery with a level of complexity and character development generally uncharacteristic of the genre. It’s a slow build, but I wanted to find out what happened and to enmesh myself with this flawed family. Full Review.
Plot Summary: World War II “annihilated over 90% of Poland’s Jews and […] all but about 300 of the 30,000 Jews from Radom,” Georgia Hunter’s ancestors’ home. Yet, her entire family survived. We Were the Lucky Ones is based on the story of how they did it.
My Thoughts: The Kurc family’s experience during World War II, beginning in Poland and stretching to Siberia, Italy, and Brazil is nothing short of a harrowing odyssey, the outcome of which defies statistics, explanation, and imagination. It feels like a “quick read” in a page-turning sense, even though it’s not a short or light book. Excellent choice for anyone who enjoyed The Nightingale or All the Light We Cannot See. Author Interview.
Plot Summary: Lillian, a scholarship kid, and Madison, an heiress, become friends at their Tennessee boarding school. Years later, Madison is married to a U.S. Senator and asks Lillian to serve as “governess” for her ten year-old stepchildren. But, the stepchildren catch fire when they get upset and Senator Roberts is gunning for higher office.
My Thoughts: I was nervous about the outrageous premise (kids literally catching on fire when they’re upset). I usually like my fiction firmly rooted in reality; however, I’m a mother, so I appreciated this idea as a metaphor. This book seamlessly combines dark humor with warmth into brain candy that has sass and heart. A sweet, but not eye-rollingly saccharine story. P.S. – I recommended this book for Book of the Month in October 2019!
Plot Summary: When Diana, Lucy’s accomplished, but distant mother-in-law is found dead in suspicious circumstances, Lucy and her family are forced to confront their feelings about Diana and each other.
My Thoughts: The Mother-in-Law opens with Diana’s mysterious death, but that’s not really what this story is about. Told in alternating perspectives (Diana’s and Lucy’s) and timelines that shift between the past and the present, this is a family drama focusing on the relationships between Lucy and Diana, Lucy and her husband Ollie, and Lucy’s sister-in-law (Nettie) and Diana. For a family drama involving death, it’s surprisingly heart-warming and thought-provoking about the complicated mother-in-law / daughter-in-law dynamic, which isn’t covered as much in literature as the mother/daughter relationship. And, it was a pleasant surprise for me given I DNF’d Hepworth’s last book (The Family Next Door).
Plot Summary: The Foxman family gathers upon the death of their father to sit Shiva for seven days.
My Thoughts: This Is Where I Leave You is a bit similar to Seating Arrangements, but funnier, faster moving, and way less WASPy. It’s somewhat of a tragicomedy with most of the tragedy cloaked in humor….so I would not classify it as a sad book at all. I laughed most of the way through it, even though the situations the family members were in would definitely be considered “sad” (think divorce, infidelity, death of a family member, infertility). Full Review.
Plot Summary: Westover tells her story of growing up in a survivalist Mormon family who didn’t believe in public education and her journey to break the mold by getting her PhD at Cambridge University.
My Thoughts: Imagine if you had to choose between getting an education (both the traditional kind and an education about life in general) and having a relationship with your family. That’s what happened to Tara Westover. Tara’s father insisted the whole family live “off the grid”…with no interaction with the government or modern medicine. There are many parts that are hard to read…and that I’d have found totally unbelievable had this been fiction. If you liked The Glass Castle, Hillbilly Elegy (my review), and/or Under the Banner of Heaven (my review) Educated should be next on your list! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Willner, an ex-U.S. intelligence officer covering East Germany, tells the true story of her family being separated by the Berlin Wall and their experience living in Communist East Germany.
My Thoughts: Forty Autumns is a fascinating look at communism and East Germany through the lens of one family’s experience. I learned a ton about life behind the Iron Curtain and the gut-wrenching fear and oppression the East Germans faced. It’s highly readable despite it’s serious topic and touches the emotional heart-strings while giving you a history lesson. Excellent choice for mothers, mother-in-laws, and grandmothers…and, pairing it with Georgia Hunter’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones, in a Fiction / Nonfiction Pairing would make a perfect double-whammy gift!
Plot Summary: Shapiro’s memoir about her experience discovering her father was not her biological father through an online DNA test.
My Thoughts: This memoir was emotional and an interesting look into a new phenomenon brought on by the simple and cheap online DNA test. It went places I wasn’t expecting (good!), but did go over the top with theological and philosophical theory at times. Still, it’s 4 stars and reads easily enough for the beach.
Plot Summary: Brodeur’s story of her role as facilitator of her mother’s affair with her stepfather’s best friend starting at the age of fourteen.
My Thoughts: Wild Game is an incredible, yet sad and disturbing story and I flew through it in two days (5 stars!). Malabar (“Rennie’s” mother) is a vibrant, but highly manipulative character and she has her tentacles wrapped tightly around her daughter…and all this impacts Rennie’s adult life. The book world is full of mother / daughter stories, but this one is unique and Brodeur shows a high level of self-examination in her adult life as she looks back on her childhood, even as she has trouble taking the necessary steps to extricate herself from its damage.
What are your favorite family dramas?
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