The best novels about families you wish were yours…and families you’re glad are not

Nancy Garfinkel Author Of The Recipe Club
By Nancy Garfinkel

Who am I?

I’m an eclectic reader and writer, happily moving from one interest to the next. My first published book was a travel guide to the wine country of Northern California. Then came The Recipe Club — a mostly epistolatory novel written with my friend Andrea Israel. My latest book (seeking representation! Agents, if you’re listening…) is hybrid literary fiction that takes you on a deep and steep rollercoaster ride, no seatbelts included. It’s a surprising loop-de-loop of what it means to be human, what it means to belong to family and to the world, and what it means to love.


I wrote...

The Recipe Club

By Nancy Garfinkel, Andrea Israel,

Book cover of The Recipe Club

What is my book about?

Lilly and Val are lifelong friends, united as much by their differences as by their similarities. In childhood, the girls form an exclusive “Recipe Club,” which continues for decades. Readers can cook along as Lilly and Val grow into complicated women who must face the challenges of independence, the joys and heartbreaks of love, and the emotional complexities of family relationships, identity, mortality, and goals deferred.

No matter what different paths they take or what misunderstandings threaten to break them apart, Lilly and Val always find their way back together through their Recipe Club…until the fateful day when an act of kindness becomes an unforgivable betrayal. The Recipe Club is a “novel cookbook,” a pastiche of letters, emails, documents, illustrations, and more than 80 delicious recipes.

The books I picked & why

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The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

By Richard Flanagan,

Book cover of The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

Why this book?

This novel is challenging in all the best ways. It took me three tries to get into it…but once I “got it” I was hooked. The story follows Anna and her (kind of awful) siblings as they try (and largely fail) to deal with each other and their elderly mother’s decline and impending death. As if this subject were not hot enough, the novel takes place against the backdrop of the climate crisis. This is an original, serious, and existentially charged read that definitely takes the fun out of family dysfunction. Yet amazingly, the darker and more abstract this book trends, the more emotionally authentic and impactful it becomes. And the writing is simply stellar.


All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr,

Book cover of All the Light We Cannot See

Why this book?

This epic, exceptional novel is about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and Werner, a German orphan, whose lives intersect during World War II. To escape the Nazis, Marie-Laure’s father takes her to stay with her reclusive great uncle, whose home is inside the citadel walls of Saint-Malo. The novel is stunningly beautiful in all respects — not the least of which are the many loving and inventive ways Marie-Laure’s father teaches his daughter to recognize her own resourcefulness, courage, confidence, and independence. I loved this book so much.


Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Book cover of Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Why this book?

Ada is the five-part fictional memoir of Dr. Van Veen — psychologist, professor of philosophy, and student of time — who chronicles his life-long love affair with his half-sister Ada. A deliberately falsified family tree prefaces the book, and the alternative title to Van’s memoir is Ardor: A Family Chronicle. Nabokov is my favorite writer and Ada is my favorite Nabokov: a long, complicated, totally original, and brilliant novel that takes explores the landscapes of Self, imagination, and consciousness, all through the lens of family. It’s not an easy read, but it is one I find infinitely inspiring. 


To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee,

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

This always re-readable classic is about a lot of things — racial injustice, class, gender roles, childhood, loss of innocence — but its beating heart belongs to the narrator’s father, Atticus Finch. No matter how wonderful your own father might be, everybody wishes Atticus were their father too.


The Color Purple

By Alice Walker,

Book cover of The Color Purple

Why this book?

Written as a series of undated letters, this novel spans decades and describes the love, pain, suffering, and faith of both Celie (who writes her letters to God) and her sister Nettie. It’s a profoundly felt story about endurance, forgiveness, and the re-shaping and repair of a broken family, one that is terribly distorted by historical racism, sexism, and social injustice. It’s powerful, sad, and ultimately uplifting. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in bildungsroman, the upper class, and World War 2?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about bildungsroman, the upper class, and World War 2.

Bildungsroman Explore 174 books about bildungsroman
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Lilac Girls, Alone in Berlin, and The Glass Room if you like this list.