The best multi-generational family sagas that put the “opera” into “soap opera”

Snowden Wright Author Of American Pop
By Snowden Wright

The Books I Picked & Why

One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Book cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Why this book?

For years I described my second novel by saying, “It’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude, except instead of South America it’s set in the American South.” I must have used that line two dozen times. When I was halfway through writing my book, I decided it would probably be a good idea to actually read Gabriel García Márquez’s novel.

How stupid I was to have waited so long! I’m hardly the first to claim this, but One Hundred Years of Solitude, about the many generations of the Buendía family, is one of the greatest literary achievements in far more than a hundred years. It’s one of the greatest in a thousand years, and thousands more to come.


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Little, Big

By John Crowley

Book cover of Little, Big

Why this book?

The same way hearing “soap opera” used as a pejorative upsets me so much I want to fake my own death, frame my estranged father for murder, and wrest control of his business empire, hearing “fairy tale” used that way makes me want to wave a wand and turn the detractors of science fiction and fantasy into horny toads.

John Crowley’s Little, Big, winner of the World Fantasy Award, is not only a fairy tale with actual fairies, but also one that’s an actual tale. So many novels described as literary forget to tell a story. This is not one of them. In Little, Big, you’ll meet the charismatic Drinkwater family; I would say more, but it’s best if you see for yourself where this tale takes them.


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Homegoing

By Yaa Gyasi

Book cover of Homegoing

Why this book?

This short-story collection—the cover calls it a novel, but let’s be honest, it’s really a (brilliant) collection of (beautifully) interconnected stories—maximizes the concept of multi-generationalism. Each story follows the subsequent generations of a family rooted in Ghana. With cool, precise prose, Gyasi follows two branches of the family across continents and through real-world events, populating each generation with characters who both represent and defy the circumstances of their historical milieu. Homegoing weds the historical to the personal to create that rare thing: a work of fiction that’s profound, true, and vibrantly alive.


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World's End

By T.C. Boyle

Book cover of World's End

Why this book?

History can be a challenge and a rebuke to novelists. How can we expect, I’ve often wondered, to create a work of the imagination as surprising and majestic as the trajectory of time? World’s End is T.C. Boyle’s answer to that question. Set in the Hudson River Valley and spanning four centuries, with enough characters to fill a three-page list of them in the front matter, this darkly comic, brightly tragic novel proves that history doesn’t repeat, as the saying goes, nor does it rhyme. History braids, over and over, strand upon strand, and the only people who can see the tapestry are those who take a step back. Boyle, like all great historical novelists, knows how to step back.


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White Teeth

By Zadie Smith

Book cover of White Teeth

Why this book?

In his review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the critic James Wood coined the term “hysterical realism” to describe novels in which “stories and sub-stories sprout on every page.” My immediate response to that description? “I want to write a book like that!”  

Although I soon realized, after reading the rest of Wood’s review, he meant the term as a criticism of Smith’s novel, my desire to write that sort of book, one with an abundance and exuberance of narrative, was reinvigorated by reading the text itself. White Teeth is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, outlandish and grounded, a sensational work of sensationalism. It reads like the juiciest gossip from your most erudite friend. Where’s the tea? Right here, waiting to be poured.


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