Author Picks: 5 Novels That Perfectly Capture the Wonderful and Messy Nature of Complicated Families

This post is written by Amy Poeppel, the author of the novels Small Admissions and Limelight. Her new book Musical Chairs publishes this summer, July 21, 2020. It is a hilarious and heartfelt new novel about a perfectly imperfect summer of love, secrets, and second chances. You can get more info about it here.


In her memoir The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr says, “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” We all know that families are imperfect, often messy, and sometimes wonderful. Those of us who have spent more time than usual locked down with our relatives in the past few months have probably felt every emotion from pure joy to frayed nerves to overwhelming tension. But as we cope with the best and worst parts of our own family lives, we can take pleasure in reading wonderful novels that feature complicated families in upheaval, in reflection, and in reinvention. Here are a few books that portray some of the most complicated families in fiction, books that are packed with drama and heartbreak, humor and frustration, bitterness and love. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Awardwinning book SALVAGE THE BONES was one of my all-time favorites, so I couldn’t wait to read her next novel, SING, UNBURIED, SING—and it’s spectacular. The book follows a boy named Jojo and his family members living in Mississippi, showing the ways they care for each other, the ways they disappoint and even fail each otherand the ways they show love. Ward’s descriptions of Jojo’s connection to his grandfather and his baby sister, Kayla, are unforgettable and touching: “Like I love to hear Pop tell stories, she loves to hear me sing.” As Celeste Ng says, “It’s hard to imagine a more necessary book for this political era.”  

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Jesmyn Ward

WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD and A NEW YORK TIMES TOP 10 BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Aspen Words Literary Prize, and a New York Times bestseller, this majestic, stirring, and widely praised novel from two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi, is a “tour de force” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a timeless work of fiction that is destined to become a classic.

Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed).

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic and unforgettable family story and “an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo
Close
The Most Fun We Ever Had
by Claire Lombardo

Claire Lombardo’s outstanding debut THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD is a love letter to complicated family dynamics. With four daughters, a significant secret, and the shocking appearance of a new relative, this book is a rich, wise, and compelling family story. Lombardo writes with astonishing insight about life stages, motherhood, marriage, disillusionment, and decades of sibling rivalry; the result is a book you won’t want to put down. I felt I knew each member of the Sorenson family well and was sorry to say good-bye to them when I reached the last page. And the love story that is the center of the novel is just plain beautiful.  

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo
The Most Fun We Ever Had
Claire Lombardo

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo

MENTIONED IN:

The 10 Most Popular Books We Escaped Into This November

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 30, 2020

A WWII Historical Novel of Hope and Resistance to Light Up the Darkness

By Holly Claytor | November 27, 2020

10 Family Novels as Warm and Fuzzy as Your Favorite Sweater

By Maddie Ehrenreich | November 26, 2020

Readers’ Choice: The 10 Best Book Recommendations You’ve Ever Received

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 25, 2020

5 Workplace Thrillers to Make You Miss Your Office (or Not!)

By Maddie Ehrenreich | November 24, 2020

20 Life-Changing Books We’re Gifting to Everyone We Love This Year

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 23, 2020

Close
Queenie
by Candice Carty-Williams

In QUEENIE by Candice Carty-Williams, the main character, a Jamaican British woman in London, is struggling to manage the temporary “break” she and her boyfriend are taking. After engaging in some pretty self-destructive behavior, she begins reflecting on her past, and in particular on the actions, both positive and negative, of her family members—her mother, her mother’s abusive partner, and her grandparents. She eventually sees a therapist who helps her sort through her feelings about her traumatic childhood. Watching Queenie transform into a more independent, confident woman is truly satisfying and heartwarming. As Roxane Gay wrote on Goodreads, “Queenie is the kind of narrator you cannot help but root for even as she makes infuriating choices.” 

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo
Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe
by Evan James

Praised for his “wry intelligence and sense of the absurd” (R. O. Kwon), Evan James penned his debut novel, CHEER UP, MR. WIDDICOMBEa story about a family spending the summer together in their island home. One of the main characters, Christopher, considers his place in his family: “Son—what did it mean? . . . Family, son, family, sonTurning the words this way and that, repeating them, they soon gleamed with mystery, strange artifacts unearthed at an archaeological dig.” Christopher’s parents, Frank and Carol, are also trying to understand their roles in the household as they adjust to a new environment, new distractions, and new acquaintances. This book is delightful and witty and will have you longing for an invitation to the party. 

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo
Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe
Evan James

Named one of 2019’s most anticipated reads by Entertainment Weekly, “a hilarious and witty joy of a novel about a family’s insanely dramatic summer at their new island home” (Cosmopolitan) in the Pacific Northwest.

The inimitable—some might say incorrigible—Frank Widdicombe is suffering from a deep depression. Or so his wife, Carol, believes. But Carol is convinced that their new island home—Willowbrook Manor on the Puget Sound—is just the thing to cheer him up. And so begins a whirlwind summer as their house becomes the epicenter of multiple social dramas involving the family, their friends, and a host of new acquaintances.

The Widdicombes’ son, Christopher, is mourning a heartbreak after a year abroad in Italy. Their personal assistant, Michelle, begins a romance with preppy screenwriter Bradford, who also happens to be Frank’s tennis partner. Meanwhile, a local named Marvelous Matthews is hired to create a garden at the manor—and is elated to find Gracie Sloane, bewitching self-help author, in residence as well. When this alternately bumbling and clever cast of characters comes together, they turn “as frothy and bitter as a pot of freshly brewed dark-roast coffee, the kind that’s always available on the Widdicombe’s sideboard. And the dialogue, oh how it singes and sears” (The Washington Post).

A “gleefully over-the-top satiric debut” (Kirkus Reviews), Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe is perfect for fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins.

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo
Close
Commonwealth
by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is a treasure. In her book COMMONWEALTH, she follows the lives of the Cousins and Keating families, beginning with the very day that they all become inextricably linked. When Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating divorce their spouses and marry each other, the six children begin spending their summers together, bonding over experiences ranging from blissful moments at a lake to tragic events that will forever change themYears later, the children, now adults, revisit their pasts when an author writes a successful novel that seems to be based on their lives. Siblings and step siblings, spouses and exes grapple with all the complicated feelings—guilt, regret, affection, and loyalty—that are par for the course in a large, patchwork family. 

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo
Commonwealth
Ann Patchett

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo

MENTIONED IN:

The 10 Most Popular Books We Escaped Into This November

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 30, 2020

A WWII Historical Novel of Hope and Resistance to Light Up the Darkness

By Holly Claytor | November 27, 2020

10 Family Novels as Warm and Fuzzy as Your Favorite Sweater

By Maddie Ehrenreich | November 26, 2020

Readers’ Choice: The 10 Best Book Recommendations You’ve Ever Received

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 25, 2020

5 Workplace Thrillers to Make You Miss Your Office (or Not!)

By Maddie Ehrenreich | November 24, 2020

20 Life-Changing Books We’re Gifting to Everyone We Love This Year

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 23, 2020

Close

You must be logged in to add books to your shelf.

Please log in or sign up now.