The best books about really complicated families

Courtney Angela Brkic Author Of The First Rule of Swimming
By Courtney Angela Brkic

Who am I?

My mother, father, and I were each born in different countries, and into different languages. In my childhood, we were a hybridized wonder—one part jetsam, one part flotsam—and a country unto ourselves. Our house was filled with all kinds of books, our dinnertimes with lively conversation (and occasional shouting), our plates with food cooked according to the recipes of family ghosts. I can honestly say that no other family was like ours, especially not in the American suburbs of the 1980s. As a writer, I have always been fascinated by the tug-and-pull of intergenerational trauma, and by the dislocation of immigration and exile.   

I wrote...

The First Rule of Swimming

By Courtney Angela Brkic,

Book cover of The First Rule of Swimming

What is my book about?

Set both in New York and on a fictional Adriatic island, the novel follows two sisters. When Jadranka, the younger, leaves Rosmarina to work as an au pair in the United States and subsequently disappears, Magdalena must begin a search that leads her from the safety of Rosmarina to New York’s thriving but unrooted immigrant communities. The book explores the legacy of a Croatian island where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, where nonconformityespecially by women—is stifled by cultural taboo, and where the lure of leaving is countered by the summons of family and home. It is part literary mystery and part meditation on what it means to remake oneself in a new world.  

The books I picked & why

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

By Marina Lewycka,

Book cover of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Why this book?

Vera and Nadezhda are sisters who must set aside their differences to ward off an interloper: a gold-digging “fluffy pink grenade” who gets her claws into their exceedingly difficult emigre father. The ensuing battle uncovers hidden chapters of a dark family history, and Lewycka is both masterful and unflinching in her treatment of traumatic history. I was expecting a light read from start to finish, and while the book is very funny, it is also disarmingly profound.   

The Yield

By Tara June Winch,

Book cover of The Yield

Why this book?

When August’s grandfatherthe bedrock of a multi-generational Wiradjuri familydies, she must return to Australia, and to the town of Prosperous. There, she comes face-to-face with the things that have driven her out, a process that began long before her birth. The book’s three narrators chart the casualties of colonialism: the loss of indigenous culture, the stamping out of language, the land that is taken and forever altered. But the book is so much more than a catalogue of losses, and Winch’s song is ultimately one of identityand historyreclaimed.  

Divide Me by Zero

By Lara Vapnyar,

Book cover of Divide Me by Zero

Why this book?

For Katya Geller’s mother, mathematics is the key to all things, a lesson she effectively imparts to her daughter. But when Katya learns that her mother is sick, she is transported into a past that no longer adds up. Her father’s death and her mother’s subsequent undoing, her childhood in the USSR, her arrival in the US, and her own restless history of love combine for a ride that is wild, hilarious, and deeply affecting. The novel is also a stylistic marvel by a writer unafraid to move in brave and unexpected ways.   

The City of Good Death

By Priyanka Champaneri,

Book cover of The City of Good Death

Why this book?

Pramesh, a hostel manager, lives a quiet life with his wife and daughter. His job is to help guests who have traveled to the city of Banares in the hope of good deaths. But when a body is pulled from the Ganges, a complicated family history surfaces alongside it, one that threatens the joyful stability of the present. Champaneri’s prose is stunning. Reviewers have aptly called the book “transcendent”, and I found myself entirely transported by this meditation of life, death, and things past.    

The Widow's Children

By Paula Fox,

Book cover of The Widow's Children

Why this book?

Nobody writes complicated families the way that Fox does. The novel describes a going-away party that is an emotional crime scene of unvoiced (and voiced) resentments by neglected, grown-up children. The book (along with Fox’s memoir, Borrowed Finery) is not just an examination of dysfunction, it is a journey into the dark heart of family, and a portrayal of the damage that is perpetuated and never undone.  

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