From the day it first aired, I have been completely, unapologetically hooked on This Is Us, a brilliantly written, heartwarming, and heartbreaking show about a single family—the Pearsons—as they navigate life’s ups and downs. Jumping between past and present, it has become notorious for its meticulously crafted narrative and for inducing many an “ugly cry” on Tuesday nights. Trust me, it’s worth every tear you’ll shed. If you’re all caught up on episodes and are yearning for more, here are some novels that are Pearson-perfect. Just a warning—*mild* spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the first season yet!
If the kids—nicknamed the Big Three—are your favorite people in the Pearson clan, Liane Moriarty’s novel about female triplets is the perfect place to start. Lyn, Cat, and Gemma Kettle, like Kate, Kevin, and Randall, share an unbreakable bond despite their differences and the directions their lives take. The novels follow the ups, downs, and fantastic frustrations of being a trio through their 33rd year with lots of laughter and tears.
Matthew Thomas’s sweeping family saga captures everything we love about the Pearsons’ story: There’s love, loss, dreams achieved and unrealized, and the full range of human emotions. The novel follows Eileen Tumulty, a young woman who, much like Rebecca Pearson, comes of age in a time when she’s still expected to temper her ambitions to accommodate her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Both matriarchs are the beating hearts of their households and show unbelievable strength in the face of great tragedy.
The promise and tragedy of post-war America is charted in this riveting portrait of an Irish-American family as they chase the American Dream. It is at once expansive and exquisitely detailed, but what readers will remember most is the huge heart at its core. It heralds the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction and is destined to be an American classic.
A huge theme in This Is Us is fate, from how Rebecca and Jack meet to the way they come to adopt Randall, and it also plays a huge role in this novel from the bestselling author of THE RULES OF MAGIC. Her protagonist, Rae Perry, is young, unmarried, far from home, and expecting her first child when she meets Lila Grey, a fortune-teller who no longer cares about the future, having lost her own child. When they meet, animals panic, natural phenomena occur, and the unexpected happens as they change one another’s lives forever.
This fierce and beautiful novel brings together two women—Rae, young, unmarried, pregnant, and far from home; and Lila, a fortune-teller who has lost her own daughter years before. When they meet in Southern California, things begin to happen, and their lives connect in unexpected ways that will change them both.
This isn’t much of a spoiler anymore, but just in case—spoiler alert! One of the most shocking reveals of This Is Us’s first season is that the family’s beloved patriarch Jack is no longer alive in the present-day time line, and that impact on his family—and viewers—has dominated the show ever since. Jonathan Tropper’s novel produces more laughs than tears as it deals with similar themes of grief, dysfunction, and revealed family secrets as the family gathers together for their father’s funeral.
Simultaneously mourning the death of his father and the demise of his marriage, Judd joins his dysfunctional family as they reluctantly sit shiva and spend seven days and nights under the same roof. This Is Where I Leave You is a humorous, emotional novel about the ties that bind—whether we like it or not.
Sterling K. Brown won an Emmy this year for his stunning performance as Randall, the child Rebecca and Jack adopted after they lost one of their own. A huge storyline in this show is his quest to find his birth parents and the subsequent relationship he forges with his biological father, William. Unlike Randall, Rudolfo Anaya’s leading character in ALBUQUERQUE, a young boxer named Abran, doesn’t know he’s adopted until his dying mother reveals the secret; and he sets out to find his father in an unforgettable journey of self-discovery and identity.
A huge part of why fans love This Is Us is the attention to real and relevant issues. Kate’s relationship with her body and weight, in particular, has started a lot of conversations. Wally Lamb’s novel does the same, introducing the hilarious and heartfelt heroine Dolores Price, who faces the same struggles from the time she’s a child and is determined to make a change as she comes to terms with what her place in the world is, through the eyes of herself and others.
Spanning five decades, Ann Patchett’s latest novel traces how an unexpected romantic encounter can irrevocably change two families. When Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited and kisses her mother, Beverly, it sets the four adults and six children on diverging paths that force them to come to terms with their losses, guilt, and loyalty, with themselves, one another, and the world. It’s also reminiscent of the Rebecca/Miguel dynamic that we have yet to see play out on-screen.
Read with a Lime Spritzer
Citrus seems appropriate for a Southern California setting. At times funny and heart-wrenching, Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH covers a multigenerational saga that begins with a forbidden kiss. From there a road diverges for two families in very different ways. While Bert Cousins arrives at the fateful christening party with a bottle of gin, might we suggest a lime spritzer?
Another excellent family saga, A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD is distinctive because it juxtaposes internal and external portraits of family, much like This Is Us. Anne Tyler’s leading characters, the Whitshanks, are one of those families who everyone wants to be. Their love for one another is undeniable, and they seem special—sound familiar? But, under that love, laughter, and tender moments are the complexities of everyday life and relationships that we see the Pearsons dealing with under their own roof.
The lives of four generations of Whitshanks unfold in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor. Brimming with all the insight, humor, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish.
Throughout the first and second seasons of This Is Us, we’ve seen each character battle personal issues, from depression and anxiety to weight and alcoholism. But, they’re never seen as victims or pitiful people—they’re just seen as human. John Green’s newest novel does the same, following 16-year-old Aza, whose thoughts sometimes seem louder than the world around her, and her “Best and Most Fearless Friend” Daisy as they pursue a mysterious billionaire, telling their story with compassion and clarity.
In season two, Rebecca tells Jack that he’s a “miracle” for growing up with an alcoholic and troubled father and still becoming a wonderful father and husband himself. That idea of who we become because of—and in spite of—our parents plays out in Pat Conroy’s novel. THE PRINCE OF TIDES follows Tom Wingo as he grapples with the difficulties of adulthood and the past as he cares for his sister, who has attempted suicide, and avoids talking about one event that changed their childhoods forever. We haven’t seen much of Jack’s life before Rebecca (yet), but we imagine that many of his demons will be explained.
The sweeping forty year story of the Wingo children of South Carolina: Tom, Savannah and Luke who, along with their mother - who is definitely no rose herself - suffer through years of abuse at the hands of their nasty drinking father and finally are able to throw off and grow through the pain of their childhood. One for the ages.
This Is Us jumps in time from year to year, focusing on significant milestones and moments in the Pearsons’ lives—the first of which is the birthday that Jack and his kids share. THE YEAR WE TURNED FORTY does the same, through the eyes of three best friends who get the chance to return to the year that changed their lives when they turned forty. It asks the big questions about decisions, fate, and whether you would do something different if given the chance.
What if you had the chance to go back to one moment in your life and change it? Three best friends have that chance in Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke’s heartwarming and hilarious novel, which explores the decisions we make—big and small—that affect our lives. Jessie loves her son but hates the circumstances under which he was born; Claire is living exactly the life she wants but often thinks about the things she’s missed out on; and Gabriela, a famous author, wonders how much following her dream has affected her future.