When I think back on summer breaks gone by, I remember warm days, crummy jobs, and fight after fight with my well-meaning parents. Was I out of line? Oh yeah. Were they too protective? You betcha. Would we all have benefited from a long walk in each other's shoes? Absolutely. After all, as you spend any significant amount of time on your own you grow, you evolve, you lose the cheeky retorts and learn to keep your wits about you without being reminded it about it. And the empty nest you've left behind? Well, after a few weepy nights and lonely weekend mornings, I imagine it gets downright cozy.
And then, summer vacation comes along and transports us back to the dynamics of days gone by. No matter how mature and self-possessed I like to think I've become, after a few days with the whole family together, I revert back to the snarky, selfish, 16-year-old I worked so hard to leave behind. And, thanks a few muffled cell phone calls in the dead of night (another throwback to the good old days), I feel fairly confident that I'm not the only one.
So, if you're looking to inject your summer holiday with a little much-needed empathy and leave the growing pains of those teenage years behind, why not start with these 9 books — your family and your sanity will thank you for it.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom traces the life of Patty Berglund from those anxious teenage years into an unhappy marriage and out again. Stripped of pretense and awake to the loves and losses that shape our lives, Jonathan Franzen's epic novel is a masterclass in the twists and turns that transform people into parents and then back into people again. You'll see your parents as actual humans after this one. (And, hey, if nothing else, it's almost 600 pages long, and it'll keep you distracted.)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
An epistolary novel seeped in the quiet contemplation of a death foretold, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is a love letter from father to son. Because you never quite appreciate what you've got till it's gone, taking a little time with the quiet, soothing, nuance of Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel might be just what you need to make those family breakfasts not just bearable but beautiful. Learn to appreciate what you've got while you still have it, and maybe you'll even find yourself inspired to get to know your parents a little better along the way. After all, a good story always helps to ease the pain of a hard day.
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
Although it won't teach you how to sneak out of your bedroom window or end the debate over appropriate outerwear, This Book Will Save Your Life might actually save your life... metaphorically speaking, anyway. With a stranger-than-life story that begins with the sudden emergence of a giant sinkhole, This Book Will Save Your Life is a sweet, offbeat, outrageously funny story of a wealthy absentee father struggling to reprioritize. The story may sound trite, but the sentiment is utterly sincere, and with A.M. Homes at your side, inspiration to make the tough changes that will lead to a better family dynamic is only a few chapters away.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It can be hard to find the real people hiding beneath the familiar figures of mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, but below the surface, tucked away in the careers they've established, the hobbies they've developed, or the passions they've pursued, there are brilliant minds, creative muses, and inspirational icons just waiting to be discovered. If you're having trouble finding someone to identify with in "mom" and "dad," take some time with To Kill a Mockingbird, and let the strength, power, and integrity of Atticus Finch wash over you. Once you make it out the other side, I guarantee you'll be ready to dig deeper into the legacies your own parents are leaving behind, and maybe even make some new friends along the way.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Sometimes when you're pushed to the brink you just need to dive right over the edge and explore the true meaning of darkness. Lionel Shriver's chilling tale of violence and disregard paints a vivid picture of the worst case scenario, and that should be more than enough to start you singing a different tune when it comes the question of family game night versus a night out on the town. If what you really need to see things clearly is a radical change in perspective, Lionel Shriver's got you covered.
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid evokes the vagaries and the torments of those early teenage years with astonishing clarity and poignant prose. As Annie John confronts the cold harsh world of young adulthood, the unblinking honesty and raw sting of realization provide the perfect reminder that change is never easy, family is not perfect, and you will make it through this. (Especially if this is, like, a cruise to Grand Cayman.) To paraphrase Winston Churchill, "when you're going through hell, keep going," and if you need a little company on that long long walk, bring Annie John along and you'll find yourself on the bright side again in no time.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Named for the Russian master Nikolai Gogol, first-generation Indian-American Gogol Ganguli is plagued by the burden of his eccentric, unpronounceable name and a host of expectations he can never quite live up to. Wry, charming, and utterly unique, Lahiri's The Namesake is the ultimate reminder that even if you're not living like the Kardashians or the Cleavers. you've got nothing to be ashamed of. Let go of all your expectations, and learn to love your family for exactly who they are with Jhumpa Lahiri's timeless tale.
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
When the family business is politics and two generations of powerful passionate women are leading the charge into the 21st century, an ordinary life is all but unimaginable. With courage and conviction, Jonathem Lethem's Dissident Gardens tells the story of what it means to grow up outside the realm of average, and offers misfits everywhere a little empathy when it comes to strange family structures. If you're looking for a little help forging your own path among a legacy of strong leaders, Dissident Gardens might be just what you need.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
When your sister put her red soccer shorts in with your white tees, your grandma showed up to stay the night, evicting you from your room, and your mom took away automotive privileges because you once again forgot to fill up the tank, pick up The Giving Tree before you pack that suitcase and head for the hills. After all, sometimes the best way to stay sane in the midst of all the drama is just to sit back and remember the meaning of unconditional love.
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