9 Books That Totally Explain What You're Feeling When You Go Back Home to Visit Family
There is not, to my knowledge, a complicated, evocative German word specific to the complicated, evocative process of returning home. But as the holidays draw near, I’ve been trying to think of something to call it (I’m not trying to learn German by Christmas).
As I'm sure you well know, returning home can induce a specific anxiety — not just about seeing family, but about seeing... well, everything. There are the old football fields to drive by, sibling hierarchies to navigate, a too-short bed to sleep in, and, of course, the high school classmate you’ll definitely run into at Target.
True to life, most literature is focused on the dynamics of messy, complicated families — pick up Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and just about any sweeping Russian novel and you'll see it. It make sense, 'cause most people come from messy, complicated families. But the concept of home — and moreover, of returning home — is more dynamic and expansive than just the families we come from. There’s a tenderness and loyalty inherent to the landscape of a childhood home, and it takes a gifted writer to write about it, without either romanticizing or turning it into a farce.
Here, though, are a few books — easily digestible, even for the flight (or in my case, 12-hour car ride, gag) home — that capture some of those nuances. Right now is the right time to dig into them.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Jack Boughton, a classically prodigal child, does not necessarily have an easy or graceful transition back into his hometown of Gilead, Iowa. To say it’s a rocky transition is putting it mildly: Jack never really comes to term at all with his family (which you can read about in more detail, in the sequel Home). But the part of the novel that I find especially compelling is that the story is told from the perspective of John Ames, best friend of Jack Boughton’s father — and who (mild spoiler) Jack is able to come to some peace with. Marilynne Robinson beautifully invokes the fringe relationships — the people that we’re not necessarily related by blood to, but are bound closely to, anyways — that often matter the most, and can offer the most salient moments of personal grace.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a book about home, in the sense that it is both about making a new home, while longing for an old home. The novel follows two generations of the Ganguli family in suburban New England, and Jhumpari Lahiri deftly evokes an intimate portrait of exile and displacement amidst ordinary suburban scenes. Being an immigrant, one of the characters tells us, is “an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what has once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.”
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard's work can be hard to digest in large chunks, but if you take it slowly, An American Childhood is one of the most lyrical meditations on childhood and home (and… America) that you'll find. Dillard’s memoir of her 1950’s childhood in Pittsburgh mediates normal, common childhood moments with the kind of lush spiritual awakening you’d expect a writer like Dillard to have. Reading this will make you feel homesick, not just for your physical childhood home, but for those small moments of consciousness and epiphany that can only happen among familiar landscape. You know that 10 minute walk through your childhood neighborhood that you feel compelled to take, for virtually no reason, besides looking at mailboxes and feeling sentimental? That's what reading An American Childhood feels like.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Technically, this is a book about leaving home, not returning home — but in a way, it accomplishes the same goal as the inverse: a sweeping reflection on childhood, displacement, sibling loyalty and the cost of rash parental decisions. Reading this book a few years ago, I had one of the most cliché and joyful experiences a reader can have: total abdication of the outside world until the book was finished (if you’re seeking a self-inflicted, but totally worthwhile, isolated reading period, this is the book for you). It’s beautiful and believable and — I hate myself a little for using this word, but it’s true— epic.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Another debut novel from 2014 (seriously — this year and debut novels, what is it?) Shotgun Lovesongs is about a close-knit group of friends in a Wisconsin hometown, one of whom is a prodigal rockstar. The tone of the novel rings true, since Nickolas Butler was raised in a small-ish Wisconsin town (...and also, since he went to high school with Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver fame). Sort of The Romantics meets Lars and The Real Girl, in terms of good movies about small town Wisconsin towns, and old friends, that I’ve seen this year. If, over the holidays, you're going to hang out with hometown friends, some of whom have stuck around and some of whom are returning from a world concert tour (or, alternately, just have an enviable job), this is the book for you. (Also, this is a book with very cold weather, if you're seeking solidarity.)
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
A book that sets out to try and capture a cross-cultural story of healing against a post-9/11 Afghanistan landscape is, in a word, ambitious. A sprawling story of fathers and sons, The Kite Runner is a large scale narrative, but a quick read — not because the content is easy to digest, but because the characters at the center of the story are gritty and believable. Hosseini also writes some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read, as he follows Amir as a little boy in Afghanistan, through his emigration to the U.S, and then — years later, under heartbreaking circumstances — back to Afghanistan, once more.
St. Lucy's Home for Girls by Karen Russell
If you think your home situation is complicated, try being a werewolf forced to totally abandon your primal life and your loving werewolf parents, and acclimate into the human world via an elite boarding school run by nuns. This, anyway, is the title story to Karen Russell’s 2006 collection of short — not all of which are about wolves, or complicated home/den life, but all of which evoke mythical and colorful depictions of Karen Russell’s own home landscape, in the swampy Florida everglades. Each story is absurdly, and beautifully imagined in a way that makes it compulsively readable; and easily mirrors the dreamlike feelings that a trip home can evoke.
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Yes, this is a recent movie starring Tina Fey and Jane Fonda, but it's also a beloved book by Jonathan Tropper. This Is Where I Leave You is about being summoned back to your dysfunctional family home in the middle of your own dysfunctional crisis, after your father, the patriarch of your large family, dies. It follows in the tradition of sprawling, complicated family dramas, but with its own smart, funny, and dark take.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
My copy of Cold Mountain is secondhand and belonged, based on the heavy annotations, to someone who was reading it for an ENG 101 class (“This passage is about nature” is penciled on just about every page), but the book itself is rich and layered and deserves a close reading. The story follows W.P Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier who takes an odyssey through the Appalachian mountains to return home to the isolated community of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, where his love interest, Ada, lives (and farms, though not very well).
Yes, technically, it is an enduring and timeless love story, yadda yadda — but to me, the real star of the narrative is Cold Mountain itself, which is not far from my own home, and which Frazier captures in loving, elegiac prose. There’s a particular, and very real, homesickness for familial landscape, and Frazier’s tenderness towards Cold Mountain is particularly moving.