The best novels about families from the mid-twentieth century

The Books I Picked & Why

The Pursuit of Love

By Nancy Mitford

Book cover of The Pursuit of Love

Why this book?

Fictionalizing her large and extremely eccentric family—shabby members of the British gentry in the 1930s, lacking the wealth of earlier times—Nancy Mitford managed to create a novel that is both hilarious and poignant, with a style uniquely her own. Her characters seem almost too bizarre to be real, yet if you read about the real Mitfords, you discover that, if anything, this novel (published in 1945) softened their edges! She writes brilliantly not only about the fun and tensions among an array of strongminded siblings but also about her domineering father and, later, about the blissful madness of falling in love after an isolated childhood.

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I Capture the Castle

By Dodie Smith

Book cover of I Capture the Castle

Why this book?

Smith wrote this novel in the late 1940s when she was traveling in America and yearning for England and you can feel her homesickness shining through the story. Cassandra Mortmain, the novel’s young narrator, tells the story of her unconventional family in a series of journals, describing their home—a run-down castle in the English countryside—their chronic lack of money, and the intriguing American neighbors who eventually upend their lives. Humor and wistfulness blend together, as Cassandra and her sister, Rose, strive to preserve their family’s bizarre way of life and, at the same time, to escape from it. Though the Mortmains live in a near-fairytale setting, readers will find much that’s familiar in their adolescent dreams and confusion.

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The Parasites

By Daphne du Maurier

Book cover of The Parasites

Why this book?

This novel, published in 1949, is about three grown-up siblings who are still dominated by the memory of their famous parents, both accomplished performers, and their atypical early years, which they spent playing in theaters across Europe. Though the majority of the novel takes place after the parents have died, the ties of family remain paramount for the three protagonists. At times each one feels desperate to escape those ties, but their shared past exerts an irresistible pull on all three. Unusually, the novel is narrated in the first-person plural: the narrative often refers to “us,” but tells each sibling’s individual scenes in the third person. With its three intertwined threads, The Parasites vividly explores the lifelong influence of family bonds.

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Guard Your Daughters

By Diana Tutton

Book cover of Guard Your Daughters

Why this book?

The true identity of Diana Tutton remains uncertain. She published three idiosyncratic novels in England in the 1950s, all of which have now fallen into obscurity. Of those, Guard Your Daughters is the best: it describes a loving family dedicated to protecting the children’s mother, whose poor health has led to an insular, overly sheltered lifestyle for her many daughters. Each of the girls is distinct and vividly drawn by Tutton, who has a keen eye for the traditions, tensions, and excitement of siblings in their teenage years. Over the course of the novel, the sisters gradually forge more connections with the outside world and discover not only their own larger desires but also the hidden truth of their family life.

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The Fountain Overflows

By Rebecca West

Book cover of The Fountain Overflows

Why this book?

Toward the end of her career, Rebecca West wrote an unusually autobiographical novel, retelling her Edwardian childhood with the wisdom and sadness of hindsight. The Fountain Overflows, published in 1956, describes the struggles of an artistic family with a fiercely devoted mother and an impossibly wayward father. West brilliantly describes the hard work and ambitions of gifted children, but the book is mainly memorable for its strange, semi-magical atmosphere and the sense it gives readers of revisiting a lost world—for hanging over this book is the shadow of the First World War, a cataclysm that finally arrives in the sequel, This Dark Night.

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