The best novels about vulnerable protagonists with family secrets

Who am I?

My idyllic childhood while following my father, a US Air Force JAG officer, around the country and around the world did not prepare me to understand and recognize an abusive relationship. I had never seen or experienced abuse until I married. After twenty years of emotional abuse, which eventually led to domestic violence, I was able to leave it behind. It is only with therapy that I came to understand the early warning signs, why I had ignored them and why I stayed so long. While preparing to write A Sparrow Falls, I read many personal accounts of domestic violence and child abuse and conducted an interview with a survivor of child sexual abuse.


I wrote...

A Sparrow Falls

By Vicki Olsen,

Book cover of A Sparrow Falls

What is my book about?

A coming-of-age story about abuse, loss, and the power of forgiveness, A Sparrow Falls takes the reader to the small community of Tolerance, Arkansas as the innocence of the 1950s moves toward the turbulent 1960s. Sarah is unaware that her life amid poverty and violence is not the norm. When she finds herself at the center of a series of life-changing events that get in the way of her happiness, she struggles to reclaim her self-esteem. Can she find peace within herself and learn how to forgive those who hurt her?

Disturbing. Powerful. In every way a gripping story.

The books I picked & why

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East of Eden

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of East of Eden

Why this book?

Steinbeck can string words together like no one else. He is one of my favorite writers and this is my favorite Steinbeck book. I read it for the first time in high school and then again a few years ago. When I was studying Marketing and Economics at the University of Arkansas, I had to take electives outside of my major. I took all of mine in English Lit. In one course I was the only one in the class who was not an English major. My professor was so impressed that anyone would take his course “for fun” that I was graded on my own private curve. (Not to be confused with My Own Private Idaho). When we studied Steinbeck, of course, the assigned book was Grapes of Wrath. During the discussion the professor learned I was one of only three in the class who had read East of Eden. I think that was the day my grade became an “A” in his class. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I only read the book because I loved the movie starring James Dean. 

Thank you, Mr. Steinbeck for one of the few “A”s on my college transcript.

East of Eden

By John Steinbeck,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked East of Eden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

California's fertile Salinas Valley is home to two families whose destinies are fruitfully, and fatally, intertwined. Over the generations, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of the First World War, the Trasks and the Hamiltons will helplessly replay the fall of Adam and Eve and the murderous rivalry of Cain and Abel.

East of Eden was considered by Steinbeck to be his magnum opus, and its epic scope and memorable characters, exploring universal themes of love and identity, ensure it remains one of America's most enduring novels. This edition features a stunning new cover by renowned…


A Rose for Emily

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of A Rose for Emily

Why this book?

I cheated a little here; this one isn’t a novel, it is instead, a short story (or perhaps a novella). I couldn’t put it down and stayed up into the wee hours reading it in a single sitting. Granted, it is a short story, but this is still an unusual feat for me. 

What an unforgettable ending.

If you haven’t experienced classic Southern Gothic, this is a wonderful introduction to the genre...follow it with Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” and you will be hooked. If your high school English teacher did not introduce you to William Faulkner, A Rose For Emily is a great place to start – or “As I Lay Dying.” 

Faulkner’s characters are among some of the most memorable in American literature.

A Rose for Emily

By William Faulkner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Rose for Emily as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The short tale A Rose for Emily was first published on April 30, 1930, by American author William Faulkner. This narrative is set in Faulkner's fictional city of Jefferson, Mississippi, in his fictional county of Yoknapatawpha County. It was the first time Faulkner's short tale had been published in a national magazine.
Emily Grierson, an eccentric spinster, is the subject of A Rose for Emily. The peculiar circumstances of Emily's existence are described by a nameless narrator, as are her strange interactions with her father and her lover, Yankee road worker Homer Barron.


Bastard Out of Carolina

By Dorothy Allison,

Book cover of Bastard Out of Carolina

Why this book?

I put this book on my TBR list back in 2015 when I was doing research on child abuse for A Sparrow Falls, and there it stayed for years. I am sorry I waited so long. 

During my research I ran across a YouTube video of an interview with Allison. Knowing this is a semi-autobiographical novel about child sexual abuse, I was intrigued by the loving way she spoke about her family, primarily because, in writing my book I took the view that people are rarely one-dimensionally evil, not even abusers.

Using the language of poor white southerners, Allison unflinchingly writes about generations of cyclical poverty, dysfunctional family relationships, incest, and indomitable women who marry too young and age too quickly. 

Bastard Out of Carolina

By Dorothy Allison,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bastard Out of Carolina as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A profound portrait of family dynamics in the rural South and "an essential novel" (The New Yorker)

"As close to flawless as any reader could ask for . . . The living language [Allison] has created is as exact and innovative as the language of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye." -The New York Times Book Review

The publication of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina was a landmark event that won the author a National Book Award nomination and launched her into the literary spotlight. Critics have likened Allison to Harper Lee, naming her the…


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

By J. D. Vance,

Book cover of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Why this book?

Here is another book I added to my TBR list while researching my book—and another that sat there for years. But the similarities don’t end there. This is a coming-of-age story about clannish poor whites in the rural south. In both books the protagonist is a child growing up in a dysfunctional family. Again, I found a YouTube interview in which the author spoke of the love he has for his grandparents who were unconventional in their behavior.

It is my view that children from dysfunctional families often think their lives are normal.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

By J. D. Vance,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hillbilly Elegy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER Coming November 2020 as a major motion picture from Netflix starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close

'The political book of the year' Sunday Times

'A frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir ... A superb book' New York Post

'I bought this to try to better understand Trump's appeal ... but the memoir is so much more than that. A gripping, unputdownable page-turner' India Knight, Evening Standard

J. D. Vance grew up in the hills of Kentucky. His family and friends were the people most of the world calls rednecks, hillbillies or white trash.

In this deeply moving memoir, Vance…


The Last Anniversary

By Liane Moriarty,

Book cover of The Last Anniversary

Why this book?

This was my first Liane Moriarty book - but not my last. A fun read with plenty of humor and a little mystery. The ‘Munro Baby Mystery’ to be exact.

This is a multiple-storyline book, and I found all the stories interesting. The author created many wonderful characters and brought each one to life beautifully.

I suspect many readers figure out the mystery/secret pretty early. For me, that didn't lessen the fun of reading on to see if I was right. I thought it odd when the secret is revealed about 3/4 of the way through the book. I wondered why the author was spending so much time tying up loose ends...then boom! I didn't see that coming.

I recommend this if you want an easy read filled with wonderful multi-generational characters.

The Last Anniversary

By Liane Moriarty,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of the award-winning HBO sensation BIG LITTLE LIES comes a captivating story of family, love, and the secrets that refuse to stay in the past . . .

One abandoned baby. Two sisters with a secret. A last chance to rewrite the past.
______________

70 years ago, the Munro family disappeared without a trace, leaving behind their newborn baby.

When sisters Rose and Connie Doughty found her, they took her in and raised her as their own. Since then, the unsolved 'Munro Baby Mystery' has brought fame and fortune to their small island.

But years later,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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