I don’t know about you, but spending the holidays with my family involves just a little bit of prep work — of the literary therapy kind, as I call it. Novels about families (especially if they’re complicated, messy, lovably dysfunctional ones) definitely make the top of my list of books to read before seeing my family for the holidays. There’s just something comforting about knowing that nearly everyone has a crazy aunt, a politically in-your-face cousin, a slightly off-center grandmother, or a sibling who asks questions that are just way, (way) too personal — and that they all come out of the woodwork to celebrate a holiday season that can bring on as much fear as it does cheer.
Don’t get me wrong — I love my family to pieces. Every last batshit crazy one of them holds a special place in my heart, and I wouldn’t be the gal I am today if not for the whole infuriating, loveable lot of them. It’s just that the holidays, with all that time spent around the dinner table and under the same roof again, can be as fraught as they are fabulous. To say the least.
If your family sounds anything like my family (what was it that Tolstoy said again?) then definitely check out these 12 books to read before you see your family for the holidays this year.
1. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer is a master at weaving complex family dynamics into his novels — from Oskar Schell’s relationship with his late father in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to (the fictional) Jonathan Safran Foer’s search for his Jewish roots in Everything Is Illuminated, Foer’s understanding of the ways familial identities both inform and conflict with individual identities resonates throughout his writing. In his latest novel, Here I Am, readers are introduced to Jacob and Julia Bloch and their three sons — a Washington D.C. family on the verge of imploding against the backdrop of a nation and a world at risk of doing the same.
2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett’s latest masterful novel, Commonwealth, takes readers through five decades in the lives of two inextricably linked families. One forbidden kiss is all it takes to change the trajectories of the Keating and the Cousins families; and years later, when Franny Keating tells the entire story to a famous author, he turns the most private scandals of their intimate lives into the makings of his next great book. With their secret truths suddenly out in the open, both families are forced to face their losses, mistakes, and tenuous bonds head-on.
3. Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris
This Oprah Book Club pick is a classic of family dramas, tensions, and ultimately unshakable bonds. Mary McGarry Morris’s Songs in Ordinary Time tells the story of Marie Fermoyle, her alcoholic ex-husband Sam, their children, and con man Omar Duvall, who comes into their lives and forces them to examine their largely dysfunctional relationships with one another and themselves. The youngest Fermoyle, Benjy, knows a secret about Omar that could threaten his entire family — but at risk of tampering with his mother’s tenuous happiness, keeps it to himself. This is the perfect read for anyone looking for some pre-holiday proof that there are families messier than your own.
4. This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
You’ll have to save Laurie Frankel’s latest novel, This Is How It Always Is, for your post-holidays recovery reading (because it doesn’t come out until January) but it is one of the most timely and big-hearted family stories I have read in a long time, so it definitely belongs on this list. The Walsh-Adams family has just welcomed their fifth son, Claude, into the world — but it quickly becomes clear, even before his first day of kindergarten, that Claude is transgender. This is a beautiful novel about the unexpected curveballs of parent and sibling relationships, and the limitless boundaries of family love.
5. The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
A funny and heartwarming debut novel by writer Jade Chang, The Wangs vs. the World tells the story of the Wangs, an immigrant family living the American dream — until the financial crisis destroys it, that is. Gone with their success is also their family unity, and as head of this fracturing family all Charles Wang wants to do is return to his native China to start over once again. Instead, he takes his family on a Kerouacian road trip across the United States, from California to New York, forcing all of the Wangs to not only reexamine their relationship with America, but reignite their relationships with each other as well.
6. Want Not by Jonathan Miles
What better holiday read than one that begins on Thanksgiving Day? This one takes readers into three very different lives on the verge of colliding with one another: Dave is a middle-aged debt collector with a “trophy wife” and a deep love of consumerism, Elwin is a recently-divorced professor who struggles with watching his father suffer from Alzheimer's, and Micah and Talmidge are Manhattan squatters who make a living by dumpster diving. What they all have in common are their struggles with want and waste, desire and necessity, and their relationships with flesh-and-blood people versus their relationships with our material belongings.
7. Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand
Elin Hilderbrand’s novel Winter Street meets the dysfunctional and disarrayed Quinn family as they gather together for the Christmas holidays — dealing with a sudden infidelity, a love triangle, a legal snafu, an unplanned pregnancy, a military deployment, a minor housefire, and a whole lot of other chaos to boot. As this close-knit family shares an unpredictable and less-than-idyllic holiday season, they’ll remind you of your own quirky and imperfectly lovable family.
8. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
A 2014 Man Booker Prize-nominee, this novel of political activism and family history tells the story of the Ghosh parents, their five children, and their myriad grandchildren who each occupy different floors of the same expansive house — can you imagine? — toil away in the same family-owned business, and harbor a lifetime’s worth of grudges, dramas, and resentments against one another. Then the eldest, idealistic Ghosh grandchild, Supratik, becomes involved in a local, extreme activist group that threatens family politics as much as state. Neel Mukherjee’s novel, The Lives of Others, is a rich and meditative read about politics inside the family and out, perfect for the holiday season following one of the most heated election seasons in U.S. history.
9. We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Wally Lamb’s We Are Water tells the story of wife, mother, and artist Annie Oh — a woman who is unable to go on living within the traditional, nuclear family she’s been the matriarch of for years, and suddenly finds herself making a decision that alters the course of the Oh’s lives forever: marrying her lover, Vivian. But while following her heart is something to be celebrated, all members of the Oh family — including Annie — struggle with the loss of the life being left behind. Told from the alternating perspectives of each member of the Oh family, We Are Water is a gorgeously written novel about passion and forgiveness and the ever-shifting definitions of what it means to be family.
10. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
I’m pretty sure Jonathan Tropper had my family in mind when he was writing the novel This Is Where I Leave You — and once you read it, you’ll probably feel exactly the same way. This book is filled with a cast of characters who are undoubtedly similar to your own perfectly imperfect family members — the ones you love, the ones you tolerate, and the ones you can only stomach about once a year or so. This Is Where I Leave You introduces readers to the Foxman family, who are sitting Shiva for the family patriarch, Mort Foxman, all the while trying to keep a lid on an impending engagement, a family divorce, infidelity, drunken mishaps, a surprise pregnancy, infertility, and a fist fight or two for good measure. Sounds like Thanksgiving at my house.
11. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Love this one. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves meets the Cooke family at a strange and awful moment of transformation in their lives — the normally talkative Rosemary Cooke is hiding a deep secret behind a veil of silence, her brother is a fugitive wanted by the FBI, her mother is despondent, her father distant, and Rosemary’s sister, Fern, warrants a few eyebrow raises of her own — to say the least. All Rosemary’s parents wanted was for her to have an extraordinary childhood, but their efforts seem to have backfired just a tad. Despite all the drama, Fowler’s writing is filled with moments of compassion and laugh-out-loud humor.
12. Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
This book is the perfect read for anyone who has ever spent their life trying to please their parents, only to find themselves failing over and over again. In Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season, nine-year-old Eliza Naumann has never quite fit in with her exceptionally gifted family. But when Eliza starts winning her school spelling bees, her role in the family dynamics begins to change — for better, and for worse. This is a sweet coming-of-age story that follows one family through a season of transition and transformation.
Image: Sofia Sforza/Unsplash