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12 Books About Families that Take Dysfunction to a New Level

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • December 18, 2019

The Twisted Ties that Bind

For many of us, the holiday season represents an obligation opportunity to spend time with our extended family. This can be a mixed bag, of course. We love them, but also they drive us bananas. We don't know about you, but sometimes a good story about a clan more dysfunctional than ours is the perfect antidote for the tribulations of togetherness. Here are twelve books that will hopefully leave you thinking, "Well, at least we're not that bad!"

Bizarre Broods

Many of us grew up thinking our families were "normal." It's only when we got out into the world that we recognized the quirks that made our household different. But some family stories fall into a special category of unusual. In The Glass Castle (adapted into a 2017 film), Jeannette Walls shares the wild tale of growing up with her brilliant, charismatic, alcoholic father and her artistic, unconventional mother. It is an extraordinary memoir of family.

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler tells the story of sisters, Fern and Rosemary, raised side by side, until a cataclysmic event forces their separation. Oh, and by the way, Fern happens to be a chimp. It's a gripping, big-hearted book with much to say about what constitutes humanity.

Katherine Dunn creates a darkly fantastic world of odd characters in Geek Love, the story of Al and Lily Binewski, a couple who decide to breed their own carnival exhibit of human oddities. This creepy family story is steeped in horror and Machiavellian cruelty.

Comical Clans

Maybe the best unconventional family stories are the ones that make us laugh. David Sedaris is certainly one of the most prolific purveyors of familial humor. Take your pick of any of his collections of hilarious stories about his marvelously funny family. One that we particularly like is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

Priestdaddy, a memoir from poet Patricia Lockwood, depicts a zany household headed up by her father, a singularly bawdy Catholic priest (a loophole allows a priest to be married and have children if he converts from another related religion). Lockwood's keen sense of humor is balanced by extraordinary depth and deft, elegant prose.

In her graphic memoir, cult favorite comic artist Alison Bechdel shares her darkly funny coming-of-age story. Marked by gothic twists, a complicated father-daughter relationship, and a family-owned funeral home, dubbed Fun Home, by the author and her brothers.

Heartbreaking Households

Tragedy leaves an indelible impact on a family unit. It can push people apart or, sometimes, fuse an even tighter bond. Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of Jojo, a teenage boy in rural Mississippi trying to find his place as a man amidst a family of vastly contrasting examples.

"Lydia is dead, but they don't know that yet." So begins Everything I Never Told You, the beautifully crafted debut novel from bestselling author Celeste Ng. When the body of their favorite child is found in the lake, the delicate balancing act keeping the Lee family intact is upended.

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in 1980s Atlanta, Tayari Jones's Silver Sparrow tells a tale of two teenage girls who meet and become friends, but only one of them knows that they share a father.

Familiar Folk

Some stories cut a little close to the bone. We may read them with a sense of recognition that can be unnerving, but cathartic.

Jonathan Franzen depicts a wonderfully real and complex family portrait in his National Book Award-winning The Corrections. As her husband succumbs to Parkinson's disease and her three adult children flounder in their own lives, Enid Lambert struggles to salvage a holiday family gathering.

An unexpected romantic encounter leads to the dissolution of two marriages and the beginning of a new one. In Commonwealth, the magnificent Ann Patchett explores the rippling effects of the union of two families over five decades.

Set in Nova Scotia, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald chronicles the lives of the four Piper sisters through several generations of sin, guilt, and redemption. At the heart of this epic tale is a family secret that threatens to upend their lives.

These are some literary families that have stuck with us! Their stories have made us gasp, chuckle, weep, or all of the above. In any case, we hope you find something here that serves as a balm for your holiday togetherness. And let us know if you have any favorites we've missed.

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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Memoir | Nonfiction | Comedy
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