The best novels about family dysfunction and drama

Who am I?

Mary Karr once wrote, "A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it." I totally agree with that. In forty years, I’ve yet to encounter a magical family where everybody gets along, nobody screams things they don’t mean, and there’s never a need to drown your feelings in food or drugs or booze. I grew up in a more-than-averagely dysfunctional household, where poor health and crippling anxiety frequently raised their ugly heads. Since losing my younger sister to mental illness six years ago, I’ve worked hard to make sense of our past, both through my own writing and through the work of authors who write so well about family dynamics.


I wrote...

A Matter of Life and Death

By Andy Marr,

Book cover of A Matter of Life and Death

What is my book about?

Six months ago, Tom Halliday left his job. Two days after that, his wife left him. Now, with his mother seriously ill, he is forced to return to his childhood home and rejoin the family he has worked to avoid for the past twenty years.

As the weeks pass and his mother’s condition continues to worsen, secrets are revealed and longstanding grudges resurface within the Halliday home. But by re-examining their shared histories and the status of each tattered relationship, the family begins to reconnect in moving and unexpected ways, and Tom is finally able to make sense of the mess his life has become.

The books I picked & why

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Terms of Endearment

By Larry McMurtry,

Book cover of Terms of Endearment

Why this book?

Terms of Endearment has every single thing that I search for in a perfect reading experience: engaging dialogue, humour, realistic life situations, and—in Aurora Greenwayone of the most memorable literary characters ever put to paper. In less capable hands, Terms of Endearment might simply have joined the ranks of hackneyed stories about a domineering parent and their submissive child. But through his mastery, McMurtry shows us that strength comes in many different guises. It’s not always the loudest person in the room who commands authority; quiet fortitude can be just as powerful as a brazen authority. I’ve learned this more than once in my own life, and I was delighted to see it illustrated here.


Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia

By Marya Hornbacher,

Book cover of Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia

Why this book?

I was first introduced to Hornbacher’s classic memoir in 2007 by my little sister, who was desperate to help me understand the eating disorder that had plagued her for more than 15 years. The book wasisa no-holds-barred account of life with an eating disorder, a terrifying narrative of a young woman's gradual and deliberate path towards self-destruction, and it left me in pieces for weeks afterward. And yet, despite the pain it caused, it really did help me understand my sister’s illness better, and in doing so helped reduce the divide that had begun to open between us. Seonaid died in the summer of 2016 after battling anorexia for over 20 years, but even through my grief, I remain grateful to this work for teaching me how to remain strong and patient in the face of this heartbreaking disease.


The Prince of Tides

By Pat Conroy,

Book cover of The Prince of Tides

Why this book?

This story, of restless Tom Wingo, his troubled twin sister Savannah, and their struggle to triumph over the tragic legacy of their childhood, is the most incredible account of sibling love I’ve ever read. It centres around a series of conversations between Tom and Savannah’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lowenstein, and no other novel has come close to describing the anger and frustration that I myself showed during the years my sister was being treated for her eating disorder. I am genuinely in awe of Pat Conroy, and his ability to put words together in such a beautiful way.


Commonwealth

By Ann Patchett,

Book cover of Commonwealth

Why this book?

In Commonwealth, Patchett weaves together flawed families who fail one another over the decades but keep trying and trusting in spite of the failures. There are no villains here–just complicated characters struggling with their own hopes and inadequacies, and desperate to move on from the difficulties of their pasts. This is not a fast-moving novel, but it is stunning, and it shows, more clearly than any other story I’ve ever read, the enduring power of loyalty, love, and forgiveness. 


Stoner

By John Williams,

Book cover of Stoner

Why this book?

This 1965 novel, which would not become a bestseller until two decades after Williams’ death, has been categorised under the genre of academic novel, or campus novel. This is fair; Stoner, we learn in the book's first paragraph, was a lifelong academic, who entered the University of Missouri as a student in 1910, and went on to teach there until his death in 1956. For me, however, the book’s perfection lies in its descriptions of Stoner’s relationships, both with his quiet, stoical parents, who fall out of his life after his marriage into a ‘proper’ family, and with his wife and daughter, who turn coldly away from him as the years pass. This might be the saddest book I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most beautiful.


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