Our Favorite Books About Unhappy Families

Happy family on paper

If there’s one well you can always draw on for a good story, it’s a family with problems—and secrets. I was reminded of this again while reading Wally Lamb’s latest, We Are Water, which follows the Oh family as it changes shape and revisits a buried past. As a tribute to the book, and because I’m already thinking about Thanksgiving, the mother of all family-reunion holidays, I made a reading list of my favorite books taking up the evergreen topic of family dysfunction:

The World According to Garp, by John Irving. Irving is masterful at pairing family dysfunction with sexual hang-ups. This late 1970s novel features a love quadrangle among married protagonists, and one of the sexually weirdest mother-son relationships in contemporary literature.

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy. One famous line from this novel sums up why it made the list: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.” In Conroy’s newest book, a memoir entitled The Death of Santini, we see that the story of the author’s real family has colored much of his fiction.

The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. Because of Faulkner’s love of unreliable narrators, stream of consciousness narration, and creative grammar, it’s not easy to understand what exactly is going on with the Compson family in this novel. But the confusion that Faulkner creates lets us feel the chaos of a troubled family life breaking down.

A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. We might expect Midwestern farmers to be a tranquil bunch, but the Iowan family at the center of Smiley’s book, which is loosely based on the plot of King Lear, is anything but.

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri’s newest book pivots on the relationship between two estranged brothers and a tragedy that prevents them, and their families, from ever moving past their conflicts.

The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr. Brutality and a truly dark family secret make Karr’s memoir about her childhood in what she calls “the Texas Ringworm Belt” an intense read.

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides. This author’s books all explore family woes in some shape, but they take an especially disturbing form in his debut novel.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. In this novel, family tension is not just destructive, it’s also a force that binds Diaz’s immigrant protagonists together in difficult circumstances.

Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs. The bigger the family, the more opportunity for dysfunction. Proof of this can be found in Burroughs’ memoir, which recounts its author’s childhood living among a huge—and hugely bizarre—adopted family and dealing with his mentally unstable mother and her various love affairs.

What’s your favorite fictional unhappy family?

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