The best books about grief and complicated family dynamics

Who am I?

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the unbroken chain of storytelling that stretches from the ancient world to the present day, which is why I write mythological retellings. So many myths tackle grief and families in all their myriad forms and shapes, and their continued existence shows us how storytelling is a healing process and always has been. We can see our own complicated family relationships and the profound impact of love and loss reflecting back to us across the centuries. Fiction continues to do this for us today too and I’ve chosen the modern books which I think do this the best. 

I wrote...


By Jennifer Saint,

Book cover of Elektra

What is my book about?

The House of Atreus is cursed. A bloodline tainted by a generational cycle of violence and vengeance. 

Clytemnestra: sister of Helen, wife of Agamemnon. Her hopes of averting the curse are dashed when her sister is taken to Troy by the feckless Paris. Her husband raises a great army against them, and is determined to win, whatever the cost. Cassandra: princess of Troy and cursed by Apollo. She is powerless in her knowledge that the city will fall. Elektra: daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Elektra is horrified by the bloodletting of her kin. But can she escape the curse, or is her own destiny also bound by violence?

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

The Stranding

By Kate Sawyer,

Book cover of The Stranding

Why did I love this book?

I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction and the premise of this one – a woman survives the end of the world by hiding inside a whale – had me desperate to read it. And this is a book that really lives up to that intriguing hook. I loved the character of Ruth, who runs away from a complicated relationship to the other side of the world, only for civilisation to collapse in an unexplained series of catastrophes. I grieved alongside her for all the abrupt endings and terrible losses, but found so much hope in her survival. It’s a really beautiful book that I still think about now. 

By Kate Sawyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stranding as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A poignant and page turning apocalyptic tale of the foibles, strengths and hopes of humanity. I was gripped, both terrified and emotional throughout and I loved every minute of it.' SIMON SAVIDGE

'An immersive end of the world story full of hope and imagination' THE GUARDIAN

'A terrific debut. Brave, unexpected... transfixing and captivating... full of hope, resilience and love' THE SUNDAY TIMES

'Holds the big within the small, the intimate within the epic' - Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Mercies

'A captivating read' THE SUN



By Maggie O'Farrell,

Book cover of Hamnet

Why did I love this book?

The story of a fascinating woman largely ignored by history? Yes please, sign me up for it immediately! Hamnet tells the story of Agnes, wife of Shakespeare, and the tragedy in their family that inspired one of his most famous plays. It peels back the layers of time, creating an intimate portrait of family life that had me utterly absorbed. I cried so much reading this book that I gave myself a headache but kept on reading anyway because it was so gorgeous, so powerful and so incredibly moving. It evokes the strength and magic of motherhood, the complexity of grief, and the enduring nature of love. It’s an unforgettable read. 

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Why should I read it?

20 authors picked Hamnet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Richly sensuous... something special' The Sunday Times
'A thing of shimmering wonder' David Mitchell


On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.


Book cover of Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Why did I love this book?

My copy of this book is battered, dog-eared, and creased from the sheer number of times I’ve read and re-read it. It’s an absolutely glorious family saga, recounted by Ruby who narrates her own conception in the first chapter and takes us back through generations weaving together all the different stories that lead up to the events of her own life. It’s brilliantly funny and heartbreaking and it skewers the oddities and dysfunction of family relationships so perfectly. Characters wrestle with their grief, they deny it and suppress it and it rears up to overwhelm them but ultimately they find their way through. I’m with them every step of the way, unable to put the book down whenever I pick it up again…and again! 

By Kate Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Behind the Scenes at the Museum as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Whitbread Book of the Year, 1995. Ruby was born while her father was in the pub. Her mother, Bunty, had never wanted to marry him, and dreamt of being swept off to America by a romantic hero, but instead, was stuck in a flat with her three children. This is the family's story.

Anybody Out There?

By Marian Keyes,

Book cover of Anybody Out There?

Why did I love this book?

This is my favourite book from my all-time favourite author. I will never forget reading this for the first time, in my then-boyfriend’s flat at the start of our relationship. I ignored him all day (it’s ok, we ended up married) until I’d read it cover to cover. Marian Keyes knows how to pack a devastating emotional punch within her witty, entertaining novels and this is one of the most brutal. It’s a crystal-clear insight into grief, a book that made me sob uncontrollably, and there is no one better at presenting the frustrations and comforting joy of family dynamics and friendships. I don’t think there is any other book that has wrought so many tears from me, both of sadness and laughter.  

By Marian Keyes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Anybody Out There? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bestselling author Marian Keyes has delighted readers with the lives, loves, and foibles of the irrepressible Walsh sisters and their eccentric mammy. In this Life in the Big Apple is perfect for Anna. She has the best job in the world, a lovely apartment, and great friends. Then one morning, she wakes up in her mammy's house in Dublin with stitches in her face, a dislocated knee, hands smashed up, and no memory at all of what happened. As soon as she's able, Anna's flying back to Manhattan, mystified but determined to find out how her life turned upside down.…

The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller,

Book cover of The Song of Achilles

Why did I love this book?

Readers on TikTok regularly upload footage of themselves weeping over this beautiful, doomed romance between the mythical ancient Greek hero Achilles and his lover Patroclus and I can see why. It’s lyrical, poetic, sweeping, and epic, and it’s a book that transformed a story and characters I thought I knew into something so much richer. But on re-reading, I find myself intrigued more and more by Thetis, the cold and forbidding goddess, who finds herself in the horrifying position of being an immortal mother to an all-too mortal son. There are so many lines in this novel that will stay with me forever, but none more so than the ending – you’ll have to read it to find out why! 

By Madeline Miller,

Why should I read it?

21 authors picked The Song of Achilles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'Captivating' DONNA TARTT
'I loved it' J K ROWLING
'Ravishingly vivid' EMMA DONOGHUE

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in grief, plagues, and mourning?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about grief, plagues, and mourning.

Grief Explore 66 books about grief
Plagues Explore 39 books about plagues
Mourning Explore 106 books about mourning

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Glamour Boys, Alan Turing, and Norse Mythology if you like this list.