11 Books About Dysfunctional Families To Kick Off The Holiday Season
Halloween is over, leaving a few rotting gourds and stale candy corns in its wake. Don't let your guard down just yet, though, because as soon as November 1st rolls around, we enter the holiday gauntlet that is Thanksgiving through New Years. I mean yes, the holidays are a great deal of fun. We get to give gifts and celebrate overeating and lawn decorations. But for most people, the holidays also mean family, and families can be... complicated. Here are a few books about dysfunctional families to kick off your holiday season, and perhaps make you feel just a tad less alone.
Of course, every family is different. You might have a perfectly lovely family where everyone gets along and your uncle never gives long-winded speeches about how climate change is an atheist conspiracy. Or you might have a family that is dysfunctional but loving, or dysfunctional but trying, or dysfunctional but not in a cute way. Or you might have a family made up of friends rather than relatives, because family isn't always based on biology. Whatever your personal situation, you can find some laughs and groans (and schadenfreude) from these literary families, who are all different degrees of wildly dysfunctional:
'The Wangs vs. the World' by Jade Chang
Charles Wang spent years building a vast cosmetics empire and a substantial family fortune... only to have it all come crashing down around him. Now he's financially ruined, and off on a road trip across the country to collect his children from their expensive schools and drag the whole family back to China to reclaim their ancestral lands. The Wangs vs. the World is a hilarious ride, as one fractured family struggles to come to terms with their new lot in life without tearing each other to pieces.
'The Nest' by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb are months away from finally receiving their family's sizable joint trust fund — but their reckless brother Leo has put their money in danger with one inebriated night behind the wheel of a car. Now the Plumbs must come together to secure their futures... or fall apart in a squabbling mess of sibling rivalry and age-old resentments.
'Fun Home' by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel's "tragicomic" memoir, Fun Home, follows young Alison's tumultuous relationship to her late father. She unpacks her childhood, her father's obsession with keeping their house full of antiques in order, his job at the family funeral home and, of course, the fact that both she and her father were gay and coming to terms with it at the same time, in very different ways.
'On Beauty' by Zadie Smith
In this modern retelling of Howard's End, frustrated academic Howard Belsey is struggling to keep his family afloat. His job is deadly, his marriage is no longer sexy or politically exciting, and his three grown children are ruining everything with their damned enthusiasm for life. Even worse, one of them has gone and fallen for the gorgeous daughter of a right-wing nut job, throwing the Belseys into a an awkward family culture war set on both sides of the Atlantic.
'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' by Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary Cooke used to be a lively, fun-loving chatterbox. Now she's quiet. Rosemary also used to have a sister and a brother. Both are gone now. But mourning for her vanished sister is slightly more complicated than for the average family: see, Fern wasn't an ordinary human sister. But her loss has still fractured the Cookes in ways they're not quite ready to admit.
'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare
You know what it's like: one minute you're a disaffected 30-something grad student, hanging out with your girlfriend and philosophizing about the nature of life. The next minute, you're avenging your dad, who was murdered by your uncle (who is now married to your mom). Hamlet is the ultimate tale of familial dysfunction, especially if you're an angsty adult who deals with grief through soliloquies.
'The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake' by Aimee Bender
Rose Edelstein is nine years old when she bites into her mother's homemade lemon cake and tastes sadness. To her horror, Rose realizes that she has a special gift: she can taste emotions through food. Suddenly, she can see through her mother's bright, sunny exterior, right down to the despair that's eating her up inside, a revelation that starts to unravel the Edelstein family entirely.
'Everything I Never Told You' by Celeste Ng
Lydia has always been the favorite child of the Lee family. She's the one who is going to fulfill all the deferred dreams of her parents, Marilyn and James. She's the one with all the promise. And she's the one whose body is found in the local lake, ripping the heart out of the Lee family as they reel from an unthinkable tragedy.
'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' by Shirley Jackson
Merricat Blackwood lives with her sister and her uncle in a big, old house. Everyone else in their family is dead. The people of the town act strangely towards Merricat, and her sister Constance never even goes out. Merricat is perfectly fine with this. But when another Blackwood relative arrives and starts asking questions, Merricat's secluded paradise begins to fall apart...
'They May Not Mean To, But They Do' by Cathleen Schine
Molly and Daniel Bergman were prepared for their mother to slip gracefully into old age and infirmity... but they weren't quite prepared for her to hook up with an old college suitor and start rebelling against her own kids like an angst-ridden teen. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a hilarious, exasperating look at adult parent-child relationships, and all the profound, ridiculous emotions that surround old age.
'Sing, Unburied, Sing' by Jesmyn Ward
Jojo is 13, and trying to find his place in the world of grown men. He wants to be strong and reliable like his grandfather, Pop. But his mother has decided to drag him away to see his largely absent father, Michael, who's just been released from jail. Then, of course, there's his other grandfather: Big Joseph, the man who refuses to acknowledge his existence. And then there's Given, the uncle he never knew, whose death still haunts both sides of his family.