Columns > Published on November 23rd, 2017

12 Novels About Dysfunctional Families

Which family dinners do you remember more? The ones where the food was not too hot, not too cold, where everyone ate a societally acceptable amount, and conversations were civil and cohesive? Or the ones where the chicken was overdone, where you ate so much the top button of your pants had to be undone, and where arguments and tension simmered away? My bet is on the latter, and that’s why we’re also generally way more drawn to books about complicated families as opposed to simple and ever-harmonious ones: they’re more memorable, and depict relatable dynamics that we often see reflective of our own clan.

If your appetite for tales of complicated, colorful, dysfunctional families ratchets up as the holidays approach, this list is for you.

1) 'Everything I Never Told You' by Celeste Ng

The Lees are a Chinese-American family living in small-town Ohio in the 70s. From the very first page, we find out that Lydia, the eldest and favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee, has died. What follows is an exploration of the web of family secrets that come to light as the family deals with their grief. On the one hand, James has spent his life desperate to fit in with his American peers, and to hide his heritage and modest upbringing — to the point where he forces contrived ideals of normalcy on his children. On the other hand, Marilyn has always desired to stand out and prove herself as a successful woman in academia. They place these opposing burdens on Lydia, overlooking their other two children.

Before that she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.

Read it because: the character arcs are beautifully written, and capture what it’s like to struggle under the weight of fulfilling your “place” within a family — and society.

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2) 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith

Francie Nolan is a working class, Irish-American girl living in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. Her immediate family consists of: her well-meaning father battling alcoholism, her hard-working mother who is often cold and detached due to a life full of let-downs, and her younger brother who is openly favored by their mother. With Francie and her family, we face the disappointments and heartbreaks that life can bring — such as watching your peers graduate from high school and not being afforded the same luxury — and the sacrifices we will make for those we love.

The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day. What had Granma Mary Rommely said? "To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory."

Read it because: it’s a moving story about the power of perseverance and the maintenance of hope when facing hardships.

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3) 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez

An epic family saga spanning seven generations of the Buendía family. Each new generation struggles to escape the inherited characteristics of the forebears — as though the Buendía bloodline is so strong it actually determines each member’s fate. There is a total lack of privacy or freedom within the family, and even romantic relationships are kept in its confines and eventually become incestuous.

He sank into the rocking chair, the same one in which Rebecca had sat during the early days of the house to give embroidery lessons, and in which Amaranta had played Chinese checkers with Colonel Gerineldo Marquez, and in which Amarana Ursula had sewn the tiny clothing for the child, and in that flash of lucidity he became aware that he was unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past.

Read it because: it forces you to think about the power of your own memory — too much nostalgia for your past can prohibit you from living in the present, while a dismissal of your history can void the learning lessons that life provides us.

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4) 'The Middlesteins' by Jami Attenberg

Edie has struggled with her weight her entire life. Now, at the age of 60, she suffers from diabetes so severe that both of her legs require stents and her doctor warns that she will soon need a bypass. She has been fired from her job for thinly-veiled discriminatory reasons, and her husband has abandoned her. Determined to keep the rug planted firmly under their mother’s feet, her children — Robin, who is feeling vengeful towards her father, Jerome, who is an easy-going pot aficionado, and his perfectionist, Type-A wife, Rachelle —  rally around her. All while planning a huge b'nai mitzvah party. 

Food was made of love, and love was made of food, and if it could stop a child from crying, then there was nothing wrong with that either.

Read it because: it’s a reminder that falling apart can be an opportunity to put yourself back together in new, stronger ways.

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5) 'A Game of Thrones' by George R.R. Martin

Let’s do a brief roll call...

House Targaryen: A man so erratic he was affectionately referred to as “The Mad King,” deposition, abusive brothers, and incest.

House Lannister: In the words of Renly Baratheon, "You have to give it to the Lannisters – they may be the most pompous, ponderous *bleeps* the gods ever suffered to walk the world, but they do have outrageous amounts of money." More incest.

House Greyjoy: The murder of children, severe father issues, and a power-crazed uncle. Almost incest.

House Bolton: Their House sigil is a flayed man because of how common-place the practice of flaying is in the Bolton’s history. The family that produced the abominable Ramsay Bolton.

House Stark: The most together family in the book, except for that one kid who keeps telling everyone he’s a “three-eyed raven.” No reported incest.

Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.

Read it because: you can dive into a long-winded monologue about all the story-details your family members who’ve only watched the show are missing out on. That’ll show ‘em!

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6) 'The Vacationers' by Emma Straub

Bringing your whole family to Mallorca for two weeks sounds like fun, right? "There will be no drama whatsoever,” you might think. Well, if your family is anything like the Posts from The Vacationers, then you’d be wrong. Franny and Jim Post have planned the trip to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. But right before they leave for Mallorca, Jim drops the bombshell that he cheated on Franny with an intern just before the trip starts. They go on the trip anyway with their angsty daughter, Sylvia, who is anxious to leave for college, their oblivious son Bobby, and his fitness-obsessed, significantly older girlfriend. What could go wrong? Cue the misunderstandings and slamming doors.

Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best.

Read it because: the chaos this family experiences while in Mallorca will be a nice break from the jealousy-inducing pictures your friends are posting of their getaways.

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7) 'The Nest' by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Speaking of dysfunctional families with 5-letter surnames that start with “P,” let’s take a look at The Nest, a novel about siblings Melody, Beatrice, Jack, and Leo Plumb. After decades of family tension, the family is brought together when their trust fund, “The Nest,” is endangered by Leo’s drunk driving and a stint in rehab. Now, facing a number of self-inflicted problems such as unwieldy mortgages, failing careers, and betrayal of loved ones, the siblings are looking to The Nest as their ticket to happiness.

Everyone’s always on the hunt for a mirror. It’s basic psychology. You want to see yourself reflected in others. Others—your sister, your parents—they want to look at you and see themselves. They want you to be a flattering reflection of them—and vice-versa. It’s normal. I suppose it’s really normal if you’re a twin. But being somebody else’s mirror? That is not your job.

Read it because: it’s a feel-good dose of “money doesn’t buy happiness.” (And not the annoying kind that doesn’t acknowledge the role not having money can play in struggles).

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8)' On Beauty' by Zadie Smith

Well, one thing we all know is that we don’t choose our families, and a bloodline doesn’t necessarily mean common values. On Beauty revolves around the mixed race British-American Belsey family: Howard Belsey is a Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t actually like Rembrandt. His wife, Kiki, struggles to conform to the community of predominantly white academics that surround her. Their three children also face their own conflicts: Levi, similarly to his mother, seeks to understand his color and what it means for his identity; Jerome pursues faith in the midst of an atheist family; and Zora fights for her belief that academia can be for everyone. Through the Belseys, Smith asks us to consider how there can be cohesion and love within a family, even when there is a vast mix of clashing values, identities, and beliefs.

The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful...and decide what you want and need and must do. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.

Read it because: as the title would suggest, it offers a compelling exploration of the relative and ambiguous idea of beauty.

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9) 'The House of the Spirits' by Isabel Allende

Esteban is the volatile, proud patriarch of a Chilean family with lofty political goals. Clara, his wife, is a gentle woman with mystical powers — a connection to the “spirit world.” Their daughter, Blanca, defies her father by having a forbidden love affair. Esteban is enraged at first, but this affair ultimately results in his greatest joy: a granddaughter who ends up being a revolutionary force for their family and their country. You know, just like your next-door neighbours.

Memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously... That's why my Grandmother Clara wrote in her notebooks, in order to see things in their true dimension and to defy her own poor memory.

Read it because: it includes a cast of female characters with unique means of asserting and empowering themselves.

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10) 'The Descendants' by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Matthew King and his two daughters — a 10-year-old in constant need of attention and 17-year-old struggling with drug addiction — are on the road to find the man his wife has been having an affair with, the man who was her true soulmate. Why? Well, they need to inform him that she’s been in a coma since a boat-racing accident and will soon be taken off life support. Again, why? Well, family ties can make us go to incredible lengths, even for — and sometimes especially for — those who are no longer with us.

Why is it so hard to articulate love yet so easy to express disappointment?

Read it because: it captures the many, often conflicting, emotions we face when grieving.

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11) 'The Casual Vacancy' by J.K. Rowling

Oh boy, where do we start? Time for another roll call!

The Mollison Family: adultery, homophobia, makeout sessions between a minor and a middle-aged woman, sketchy politics.

The Weedon Family: addiction, toxic relationships, tragedy.

The Wall Family: a teenage boy who lashes out at his adoptive parents by bullying his own father, who is dealing with OCD, on social media.

The Price Family: physical and verbal abuse, political bribery.

The Jawanda Family: a mother who contributes to her daughter’s depression by constantly comparing her to others.

It was so good to be held. If only their relationship could be distilled into simple, wordless gestures of comfort. Why had humans ever learned to talk?

Read it because: let’s be real, J.K. Rowling does magical things with pen and paper.

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12) 'The Family Fang' by Kevin Wilson

Adolescence can be a tricky-enough time on its own. But when your parents refer to you as child A or child B, and you’re frequently involved in their public, interactive art pieces intended to subvert normality, well… Annie and Baxter Fang can tell you: it’s even tricker. When these siblings return home to discover their parents planning their final masterpiece, they are confronted with the decision of whether or not to participate.

He tried to think of all the people in his life as chemicals, the uncertainty of mixing them together, the potential for explosions and scarring.

Read it because:  it will have you thinking twice about how much of the lens through which you see the world is equipped to you by your family.

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See your family in any of these books? What are your favourite dysfunctional families from literature?

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving!

About the author

Emmanuel Nataf is a Founder at Reedsy, a marketplace and set of tools that allows authors and publishers to find top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy's services.

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