CULTURE & ARTS

13 Great Books That Mirror The Complexities Of Family, Both Chosen And Not

Sometimes we need to sit with fake lives in order to contend with our real ones.

We are who we surround ourselves with. In some cases, we are able to pick who that is, as with our close friends and lovers. Other times, we are handed a group of individuals that, at first glance, doesn't sync with our values and personalities, whether by blood, by work or by mere geography. 

The final quarter of each year tends to amplify just how successfully we've navigated these social structures. Holiday ads encourage making a long list and checking it twice. Merry jingles play over images of pleasant people in sweaters around a ham. Something in us wants to believe in the perfected November and December bliss, even if we've never seen it in real life, which can lead to higher levels of stress and sadness around this time of year. 

These feelings can hit hardest when it comes to how people perceive their families, whether or not close-knit social bonds are the ones they were born into or ones they created later in life. While parsing out these feelings in real life can be difficult, sometimes it helps to see the situation from a good work of fiction. These 13 books are just a few examples of stories that mirror close familial relationships as they truly are, in all of their complexities and hidden joys.

  • Reunion, Hannah Pittard
    Maybe grab this one for your airport slog: As her career and marriage are failing, Kate receives a call while sitting on
    Hachette
    Maybe grab this one for your airport slog: As her career and marriage are failing, Kate receives a call while sitting on a plane informing her that her estranged father has died by suicide. With a dry detachment, she returns home to see her siblings, half-siblings and her dad's five ex-wives. Pittard crafts a look at family that examines the ties we have to loved (and less loved) relatives.
  • One! Hundred! Demons!, Lynda Barry
    If you haven't yet read Lynda Barry, start with this work once&nbsp;called an "<a href="https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/one
    Sasquatch Books
    If you haven't yet read Lynda Barry, start with this work once called an "autobifictionalography." This graphic narrative contains bitingly true comics about love, loss and the strangeness of family and adolescence -- a winning companion whether you're heading to a wacky family-filled holiday, or just having a meal for one or two. You'll be reminded that no matter the circumstances, there's heart and humor to be found.
  • The Land of Steady Habits, Ted Thompson
    This novel's title comes from an old nickname given to the pockets&nbsp;of Connecticut that house affluent commuters -- a lan
    Little, Brown
    This novel's title comes from an old nickname given to the pockets of Connecticut that house affluent commuters -- a land Anders Hill inhabits until he leaves his family for a condo and the freedom he thinks he's lacking. When the life he's left behind rejects him, it's unclear if he's made the right choice, and he's forced to reconstruct his life as he grapples with distant friends and his ex-wife's new boyfriend.
  • Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
    The circus life seems dreamy in theory and murkier in real life (sleeping under the stars next to ... elephant dung, for exam
    Warner Books
    The circus life seems dreamy in theory and murkier in real life (sleeping under the stars next to ... elephant dung, for example). But it all makes for a hell of a story. Stay awake through all that tryptophan with this page-turning chronicle of the Binewskis, a clan of sideshow oddities -- oddities inflicted upon them by their parents, via genetic mutations, body-altering chemicals and more -- that inspires awe and disgust as they take their show around the country. The Binewskis present an image of parental influence and domesticity that is wholly unique.
  • The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
    Flournoy, a 2015 "5 Under 35" honoree of the National Book Foundation, crafts a tale that is both about the inner-workings of
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
    Flournoy, a 2015 "5 Under 35" honoree of the National Book Foundation, crafts a tale that is both about the inner-workings of a large family alongside the changing landscape of Detroit. When the family matriarch must move out to live with her eldest son, the Turner children must come together to determine what will happen to their house and contend with the haunts from their pasts that emerge.
  • Infinite Home, Kathleen Alcott
    Sometimes people come into our lives merely by proximity -- a phenomenon that occurs in Alcott's mixed bag of characters, all
    Riverhead
    Sometimes people come into our lives merely by proximity -- a phenomenon that occurs in Alcott's mixed bag of characters, all whom reside in landlady Edith's Brooklyn brownstone. She's collected rent from these strange and off-center individuals, but it isn't until eviction looms, and Edith's health deteriorates alarmingly, that true bonds between the residents are formed.
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender
    Imagine if you began feeling the emotions of your great aunt Myrtle after taking a bite of her famous stuffing. Nine-year-old
    Knopf/Doubleday
    Imagine if you began feeling the emotions of your great aunt Myrtle after taking a bite of her famous stuffing. Nine-year-old Rose goes through this jarring experience when she realizes she can feel her mother's thoughts after trying a slice of her titular lemon cake. Instead of heading off into too-zany territory, Bender shows how Rose's unique insights inform her place amongst, and understanding of, those she lives with.
  • Among the Ten Thousand Things, Julia Pierpont
    This novel leaves no holds barred right from the beginning: Simon and Kay, two children of the New York couple Jack and Deb,
    Random House
    This novel leaves no holds barred right from the beginning: Simon and Kay, two children of the New York couple Jack and Deb, discover an explicit collection of messages sent between Jack and his much younger lover. This discovery sets into motion a series of events that drive the small family further and further apart. Pierpont skillfully captures the interior lives of both parents and children.
  • The Brothers K, David James Duncan
    Hugh Chance had a promising career as a baseball player until an industrial accident shattered his chances, a loss that hangs
    Dial Press
    Hugh Chance had a promising career as a baseball player until an industrial accident shattered his chances, a loss that hangs over his wife and six children in intangible ways. Chance's youngest son, Kincaid, narrates this work of fiction, which is overlaid onto real-life events, spanning the Eisenhower era to the Vietnam war. 
  • The First Bad Man, Miranda July
    Cheryl is an exacting woman who lives alone in her apartment, until her bosses' 21-year-old daughter, Clee, moves in. After b
    Scribner
    Cheryl is an exacting woman who lives alone in her apartment, until her bosses' 21-year-old daughter, Clee, moves in. After being at odds with each other, the two unlikely roommates form a strange yet somehow supportive relationship.
  • The Star Side of Bird Hill, Naomi Jackson
    Young Phaedra and her older sister Dionne are sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados after their mother, a nurse who
    Penguin Press
    Young Phaedra and her older sister Dionne are sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados after their mother, a nurse who works with AIDS patients, is unable to provide for them. The two sisters adjust to their new lives, weathering certain twists and turns, and Barbados comes to life with Jackson's insightful and illustrative writing.
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl
    At the heart of this epic-length novel (perfect for when the TV is stuck on football and not the dog show) is the unique rela
    Penguin
    At the heart of this epic-length novel (perfect for when the TV is stuck on football and not the dog show) is the unique relationship between Blue van Meer and her intellectual father. Their road-tripping lifestyle leads them to North Carolina, where Blue becomes ensnared in an intense prep school clique.
  • The Last Days of California, Mary Miller
    Miller blends two common literary tropes, a&nbsp;road trip and the threat of an apocalypse, and applies them to a zealous fam
    Liveright
    Miller blends two common literary tropes, a road trip and the threat of an apocalypse, and applies them to a zealous family in this sparkling novel. Jess Metcalf and her family are driving from their home in Alabama to California in order to witness the rapture that her parents promise will come. This confined setting -- she, her sister, father and mother all in one car -- allows readers to feel the claustrophobia and self-reflection Jess experiences as she and her family head west. What results is a well-paced novel that doesn't rely on clichés to spin an engaging tale.

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