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

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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