6 Multigenerational Family Dramas Where Big Secrets Come to Light

August 17 2022
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“Family drama” feels redundant, doesn’t it? It so often feels like you can’t have one without the other and—while that may make physical gatherings a little uncomfortable (to put it kindly)—in the context of a novel, family drama is often too delicious to dismiss. Deep-rooted tradition, scarring emotional cycles, and, of course, secrets upon dirty secrets make for a riveting read no matter the actual plot. Add a multigenerational layer to the genre and sprinkle in some to-be-expected comedic family interactions, and you’re likely not leaving the couch for a few days as you turn pages.

To honor this beautiful genre and all that it has to offer, allow us to share some of our absolute favorite multigenerational family dramas. You may want to clear your schedule for the next few weeks…

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
by Jamie Ford

In Jamie Ford’s new novel, THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY, he seeks to explore the trauma passed from generation to generation in an attempt to discover just how to break that cycle. It’s 2045 and Dorothy Moy, a former poet laureate, has always suffered from depression. But when her young daughter begins to show signs of suffering from the same affliction—while also “remembering” scenes from the past—she springs into action. The treatment options include an experimental technique connecting Dorothy with all the Moy women before her, including a nurse in China in 1942, a schoolgirl in 1927 England, a tech entrepreneur in 2014, and even the first Chinese woman in America way back in the 1830s. The futuristic procedure allows Dorothy to reflect on her family’s past and the pain each of them seem to share. There also appears to be another throughline: a stranger in each era searching for a Moy woman . . . and their love. For those seeking to explore the ties that bind (and time travel nearly 250 years), THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY is an affecting novel of family pain and the hope that can follow.

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The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
Jamie Ford

The New York Times bestselling author of the “mesmerizing and evocative” (Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet returns with a powerful exploration of the love that binds one family across the generations.

Dorothy Moy breaks her own heart for a living.

As Washington’s former poet laureate, that’s how she describes channeling her dissociative episodes and mental health struggles into her art. But when her five-year-old daughter exhibits similar behavior and begins remembering things from the lives of their ancestors, Dorothy believes the past has truly come to haunt her. Fearing that her child is predestined to endure the same debilitating depression that has marked her own life, Dorothy seeks radical help.

Through an experimental treatment designed to mitigate inherited trauma, Dorothy intimately connects with past generations of women in her family: Faye Moy, a nurse in China serving with the Flying Tigers; Zoe Moy, a student in England at a famous school with no rules; Lai King Moy, a girl quarantined in San Francisco during a plague epidemic; Greta Moy, a tech executive with a unique dating app; and Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America.

As painful recollections affect her present life, Dorothy discovers that trauma isn’t the only thing she’s inherited. A stranger is searching for her in each time period. A stranger who’s loved her through all of her genetic memories. Dorothy endeavors to break the cycle of pain and abandonment, to finally find peace for her daughter, and gain the love that has long been waiting, knowing she may pay the ultimate price.

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The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina
by Zoraida Córdova

If sci-fi family dramas aren’t your thing, how about a pinch of the supernatural? Such is the case in THE INHERITANCE OF ORQUÍDEA DIVINA by Zoraida Córdova, which centers on the Montoya family and the strange secrets that lurk in the home of the family matriarch. When Orquídea Divina calls upon her children and grandchildren to “come and collect your inheritance,” the family comes from all parts of the country to the magical Midwestern town of Four Rivers. They arrive, hoping to finally get answers, only to watch as Orquídea transforms into a tree—leaving nothing but more questions. The family remains in a state of confusion for nearly a decade until it becomes clear that someone (or something) is out to destroy the Montoya line. To save themselves, the children trace their roots back to Ecuador, Orquídea’s homeland where all is finally revealed. A blend of magical realism and fantasy, THE INHERITANCE OF ORQUÍDEA DIVINA follows generations of family as they unearth their secrets and seek to survive an evil force.

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The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina
Zoraida Córdova

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

Perfect for fans of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, and Sarah Addison Allen, a family searches for the truth hidden in their past in this “expertly woven tale of family power, threaded with as much mystery as magic” (V.E. Schwab, #1 New York Times bestselling author).

The Montoyas are used to a life without explanations. They know better than to ask why the pantry never seems to run low, or why their matriarch won’t ever leave their home in Four Rivers—not for graduations, weddings, or baptisms. But when Orquídea Divina invites them to her funeral and to collect their inheritance, they hope to learn the secrets that she has held onto so tightly their whole lives. Instead, Orquídea is transformed into a ceiba tree, leaving them with more questions than answers.

Seven years later, her gifts have manifested in different ways for Marimar, Rey, and Rhiannon, granting them unexpected blessings and powers. But soon, a hidden figure begins to tear through their family tree, picking them off one by one as it seeks to destroy Orquídea’s line. Determined to save what’s left of their family and uncover the truth behind their inheritance, her descendants travel to Ecuador—to the place where Orquídea buried her secrets and broken promises and never looked back.

Alternating between Orquídea’s past and her descendants’ present, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is a “spellbinding tale, both timeless and fresh, that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Prepare to fall in love” (Kim Liggett, New York Times bestselling author).

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Woman of Light
by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Sometimes the drama in “family drama” is as simple as survival. In Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s WOMAN OF LIGHT, readers trace a family of Mexican and Indigenous descent for five generations living in the Lost Territory. Luz “Little Light” Lopez and her brother Diego, abandoned by their parents, travel to Denver in hopes of supporting themselves anyway they can. It’s here that Luz learns that she has clairvoyant gifts and, when Diego is run out of town by angry racists (are there any other kind?), she seeks to use her powers to help save her family. Having seen her ancestors’ origins, from their abundant, happy life on their native land to being threatened and nearly extinguished, Luz understands her life and tradition may be at the end of its line if she cannot intervene. With detailed depictions of racism and violence in the 1930s Midwest, WOMAN OF LIGHT is both a historical journey and an account of preserving a family’s stories before they are wiped from memory.

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Woman of Light
Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
by Ayana Mathis

The beauty of a family drama can be its ability to translate a character’s painful experiences into the most valuable—and the most lasting for the reader. THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE, Ayana Mathis’s debut novel, follows Hattie Shephard during her relocation to Philadelphia after fleeing from Georgia in the Great Migration during the early 1920s. Seeking salvation but settling for a man, and marriage, of mostly pain, Hattie is scarred following the loss of her first children to pneumonia. When she eventually gives birth to nine more, she vows to raise them to survive in the cruel world. Each chapter is then dedicated to the children as they all navigate the twentieth century, taking advantage of the life lessons taught to them by their seemingly unloving mother. A collection of interconnected stories that are all emotional and, at times, heartbreaking, THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE is a worthy entrant to the genre with its complex characters and grand scope.

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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Ayana Mathis

This debut of extraordinary distinction tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family. Beautiful, devastating, and blazing with life, this novel is a searing portrait of surviving in the face of insurmountable adversity.

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An Elegant Woman
by Martha McPhee

Perhaps the best way to look at family dramas, especially those that are multigenerational, spanning decades and even centuries, is through the lens of self-identity and how that identity is formed. Martha McPhee’s beautiful novel, AN ELEGANT WOMAN, drawn from her own family history, grapples with that concept, following four generations of women during the twentieth century. As novelist Isadora explores the artifacts of her family’s lives, McPhee transports readers back to 1910 where Isadora’s grandmother, Tommy, and grand-aunt, Katherine, are on the brink of moving at the behest of their mother, Glenna. Glenna, looking to escape her cheating husband, is bringing the girls to Montana. There she lies her way into becoming a teacher, claiming to be a single woman as she pawns her children off on another couple. So begins a series of chapters in which Glenna and her daughters land in different towns across the country, lying about their identities in hopes of surviving. It isn’t long before Tommy and Katherine, having learned this trade from Glenna, are changing their names and playing with the concept of self-creation. A poignant portrait of a family and the many consequences of family traditions (both good and bad), AN ELEGANT WOMAN is multigenerational family drama at its best.

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An Elegant Woman
Martha McPhee

“A portrait of self-creation in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald”,” (The Wall Street Journal) An Elegant Woman is “a rich exploration of legacy and memory” (Entertainment Weekly) that follows four generations of women against the sweep of 20th century American history.

Drawn from the author’s own family history, this powerful, moving multigenerational saga from National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee masterfully explores the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.

As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the story shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

Told “with an easy grace many historical novels lack” (Los Angeles Times), An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking us from a drought-stricken Montana farm to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is “sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant” (The Boston Globe) in its gorgeous depiction of one hundred years in a family’s history.

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The Fortunes of Jaded Women
by Carolyn Huynh

From supernatural magic to the fallout from a curse, THE FORTUNES OF JADED WOMEN follows the “cursed” Duong sisters in Orange County’s Little Saigon. The origin of this scourge lies with their ancestor Oanh, who left her unfulfilling marriage for the true love of another—a decision that caused a chain reaction, ending with Oanh and all her descendants being cursed to never find love or happiness or give birth to a son. As a result, the contemporary Vietnamese American family, now residing in Southern California, is not exactly on good terms. But when Mai Nguyên, the eldest of the Duong sisters, visits a psychic, she learns that the family’s misfortunate may soon be changing for the better—but it will require a reunion of the sisters and a reclaiming of their culture and traditions. Told with gut-busting humor and an intricate and insightful look at assimilation into American culture, Carolyn Huynh’s debut, THE FORTUNES OF JADED WOMEN, is a unique look at family bonds and just how unbreakable they can be.

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The Fortunes of Jaded Women
Carolyn Huynh

For fans of Jonathan Tropper, KJ Dell’Antonia, and Kevin Kwan, this “sharp, smart, and gloriously extra” (Nancy Jooyoun Kim, The Last Story of Mina Lee) debut follows a family of estranged Vietnamese women—cursed to never know love or happiness—as they reunite when a psychic makes a startling prediction.

Everyone in Orange County’s Little Saigon knew that the Duong sisters were cursed.

It started with their ancestor, Oanh, who dared to leave her marriage for true love—so a fearsome Vietnamese witch cursed Oanh and her descendants so that they would never find love or happiness, and the Duong women would give birth to daughters, never sons.​

Oanh’s current descendant Mai Nguyen knows this curse well. She’s divorced, and after an explosive disagreement a decade ago, she’s estranged from her younger sisters, Minh Pham (the middle and the mediator) and Khuyen Lam (the youngest who swears she just runs humble coffee shops and nail salons, not Little Saigon’s underground). Though Mai’s three adult daughters, Priscilla, Thuy, and Thao, are successful in their careers (one of them is John Cho’s dermatologist!), the same can’t be said for their love lives. Mai is convinced they might drive her to an early grave.

Desperate for guidance, she consults Auntie Hua, her trusted psychic in Hawaii, who delivers an unexpected prediction: this year, her family will witness a marriage, a funeral, and the birth of a son. This prophecy will reunite estranged mothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins—for better or for worse.

A multi-narrative novel brimming with levity and candor, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is about mourning, meddling, celebrating, and healing together as a family. It shows how Vietnamese women emerge victorious, even if the world is against them.

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Photo credit: iStock / Jun

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