Neuroses run rampant across three generations of the Middlestein family in Jami Attenberg's sublime new novel, The Middlesteins. Who better to recommend great books about profoundly imperfect families?
In literature, as in life, every family is pretty much dysfunctional in one way or another. So what makes one dysfunctional literary family more memorable than the next? Personally, I prefer a little wit with my disaster, not to mention a little soul; it makes the pain go down easier. But every once in a while I like my families extra wicked and dark. I guess it makes me feel like I'm not that terrible after all.
By the way, these aren't in order of my favorites, because it is impossible for me to pick a favorite! I love all these troubled souls -- siblings and parents, husbands and wives alike -- equally.
The Corrections/The Lambert family. As a Chicago girl, I do love a repressed Midwestern family story, and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is a masterpiece of dysfunction. This is a hilarious and impeccably architected portrayal of paranoia, depression, and denial amongst those who know each other best/worst.
We Need to Talk about Kevin/The Khatchadourian/Plaskett family. Lionel Shriver toys with us in this enjoyably troubling novel about the family of a teen sociopath. Every dark secret seems more terrifying than the last, and yet this family is still identifiable, a testament to Shriver's precision as a writer.
A Game of Thrones/The Lannister family. The Lannisters, a rich and powerful dynasty in this absurdly popular fantasy series, lead the juiciest of lives, rife with incest, murder, pillaging, sabotage, betrayal. I would not recommend messing with them.
Townie/The Dubus family. Andrew Dubus III, the son of famed novelist Andrew Dubus, shares his story of growing up in a divorced family during the 1970s in a small, economically depressed Massachusetts mill town. Their lives were steeped in drinking, drugs, sex, and violence, and Dubus III reveals all in a crackling, original voice.
The Godfather/The Corleone family. The greatest, the messiest, the most tortured. Lovers. Killers. Eaters. Tough love, all around. I treasure and fear them.
Fun Home/The Bechdel family. In this dark, dramatic, pensive, and beautifully illustrated graphic novel, Alison Bechdel uncovers the mysteries of her troubled father's past, including his closeted homosexual life, while exploring her own sexual identity and emergence as a lesbian.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette?/The Fox/Branch family. As clever and witty as they come, this epistolary novel tells the tale of bright but tortured Seattleites Bernadette and Elgin, and their wise child, Bee, all of whom seem to be better at talking to other people about their problems than each other – or at least that's what their email trail seems to indicate. This book nails our "bcc" culture square in the head.
Pride and Prejudice/The Bennet family. We can all see so clearly what it would take to fix the Bennet family, so concerned with social climbing and marriage, and that's one of the things that makes Pride and Prejudice so irresistible. Some real, honest talk would have done them some good, but then what would we have to talk about behind their backs?
The Glass Castle/The Walls family. This is one of my favorite memoirs. Jeannette Walls grew up in a poverty-stricken family; her creative and dynamic parents struggle with alcoholism and mental illness and lead their children on a turbulent journey. Walls writes with sensitivity and humor. Truly this book is unforgettable.