18 Books About Dysfunctional Families That Will Make Your Holidays Feel Like a Cakewalk
Aunt Julia won't stop momsplaining why you should force your kid to eat everything on their plate, Uncle Mark is at it again with the off-color jokes and anti-vaxx conspiracy theories and your dear mother seems to have made little to no progress on the whole 'understanding boundaries' thing. The holidays often mean more family time than usual, highlighting just how kooky your relatives can be. What better way to put your own family's flaws in perspective than to read one of the 18 best books about dysfunctional families. It'll make you feel better, we promise.
1. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Adult siblings bickering over money? Sounds familiar. But in the case of the Plumbs, the stakes are a little higher: They’re all counting on a sizable trust fund that kicks in when the youngest of them turns 40—that is, until their reckless brother puts their inheritance into question.
2. Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
This story, set in and around the family taxidermy shop, begins with a suicide. But it’s not all a downer: The book follows 30-something Jessa, her mother and her brother as they reconnect after tragedy in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes sad and often surprising. (Seriously, it includes NSFW taxidermy art.)
3. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Strout has a gift for creating memorable characters, and the central duo in this book are no exception. Lucy, in the hospital recovering from an illness, attempts to reconcile with her estranged mother, all the while reflecting on the troubled, small-town upbringing she left behind.
4. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
Karr’s 1995 memoir is a touchstone for the genre, and for good reason: She paints a wry picture of her childhood in a 1960s Texas oil town, shadowed by alcoholism, mental illness and sexual abuse—and still manages to treat much of it like a fond, funny memory.
5. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Sure, your sister can be selfish and inconsiderate, but at least she doesn’t have a habit of murdering people? That’s the situation Korede finds herself in when her younger sister Ayoola’s boyfriends keep “mysteriously” disappearing.
6. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
In the wake of his father’s death, Judd reunites with his mother and siblings for the first time in years—and surprise, they’re stuck together for seven days and nights while they sit shiva. (Think about that while you sit through dinner with your in-laws.)
7. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is a master of building familial conflict. Nowhere is that skill more on display than in On Beauty, where the families of two rival professors get tangled up in all sorts of ways. It’s a novel about race, class and academia, but also very much about individuals trying to define themselves outside the family unit.
8. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir—which went on to become a critically acclaimed Broadway musical—recounts growing up and discovering her sexual identity, while living in a household with a stern, closeted father, who ran a funeral home (the titular “fun home”).
9. Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
Kids of high-achieving parents, take note: This memoir recounts the author’s complex relationship with her brilliant, demanding, critical father—Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. But it’s less about her famous dad’s accomplishments than it is about a daughter’s challenge of navigating her parents’ very different worlds.
10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Before it was a Y2K era-defining Sofia Coppola movie, Eugenides’s debut novel was a fascinating look at a troubled Michigan family with five teenage daughters in the 1970s. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't end well.)
11. running with scissors by augusten burroughs
Sometimes you just want to commiserate with someone who’s been there. Even if you already read Burroughs’s hit debut memoir when it first came out, it’s worth another look. Sure, your stepsister is a huge pain, but at least your mom didn’t send you away to live with her therapist and his kids in a filthy Victorian mansion?
12. the wangs vs. the world by jade chang
Meet the Wangs: a wealthy, Chinese-American family who loses everything in the 2008 financial crisis. In Chang’s bighearted, hilarious debut, they leave their foreclosed Bel Air home and head out on a cross-country road trip in a desperate attempt to start over and save face.
13. everything i never told you by celeste ng
In 1970s Ohio, a Chinese-American family is rocked by the disappearance of its favorite daughter. When her body is found in the local lake, the Lees’ carefully crafted façade is destroyed. What follows is a moving and sensitive family portrait about the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle to understand one another.
14. the vacationers by emma straub
Before their daughter starts college, Franny and Jim bring her, their other adult son and a few assorted friends and significant others for a two-week vacation in Mallorca. As tends to happen, secrets come to light and relationships are tested. It’s family dysfunction at its most entertaining (and with just enough heart).
15. STAY WITH ME BY AYỌ̀BÁMI ADÉBÁYỌ̀
Set in modern-day Nigeria, Adebayo’s unforgettable debut novel is the story of Yejide and Akin, a young couple who, together, rejects their community’s long-held tradition of polygamy. But four years into marriage, things start to unravel; Yejide is not getting pregnant and the possibility of a second wife is literally knocking on their door. Stay with Me takes a no-holds-barred look at the fragility of married love, the nature of grief and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood.
16. the glass castle: a memoir by jeannette walls
Can the children of toxic parents emerge as competent, successful adults? Jeannette Walls is proof that the answer can be a resounding yes. In her wildly successful memoir, The Glass Castle, the author recounts her extremely dysfunctional childhood in West Virginia, and the tactics her then-homeless parents use to try to reel her back into their toxic worlds throughout her adulthood. Uplifting? Definitely not. Inspiring, if you’re the child of toxic parents? Absolutely.
17. THE HOUSE WE GREW UP IN BY LISA JEWELL
The Bird family seems perfect: A sweet father, free-spirited mother and three smart, adventurous children. Then one Easter weekend, tragedy strikes, beginning to tear the family apart. After years of near estrangement, something happens to bring the Birds back to the house they grew up in—and finally understand how their ideal life came crashing down.
18. commonwealth by ann patchett
The best-selling and beloved author of Bel Canto is a master of epic stories that hinge on big moments. Here, it’s a kiss at a baby’s Christening ceremony, which ends up tearing two marriages apart, deeply altering the lives of the next generation.