All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
How do you reckon with toxic masculinity when it more or less characterizes a man you love, especially when he’s dying? That’s one of the many questions that members of the Tuchman family — daughter Alex, wife Barbra, brother Gary, and daughter-in-law Twyla — are asking themselves as their patriarch, Victor, lies on his deathbed. Attenberg is so skilled at delving into the psychology of her characters that the result is absorbing, even when sympathy is low. Set in New Orleans, All This Could Be Yours builds a nuanced, house-of-cards story about family dynamics and dysfunction with enough humor and light in the darkness to achieve a sense of truth and beauty. It’s perfect for those days when you feel dark and moody around your family, whether they’re as dysfunctional as the Tuchmans or not.
The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine
Laurel and Daphne Wolfe are identical twins who are obsessed with words, even making their own “twin language” as babies. As adults, their devotion to language remains strong, but they drastically diverge from each other: Daphne is committed to the rigidity of Standard English, while Laurel is impassioned by the ever-changing nature of the written and spoken word. When the twins fight over who will inherit their family’s prized second edition of the Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, the drama and comedy heighten, resulting in a unique story that’s perfect for word nerds. It’s meta in its wordplay and pokes fun at its own stereotypes. The Grammarians could make perfect fodder for your own family arguments over “correct” grammar at the dinner table…if you want to go down that road.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
I’ll take any chance I can get to gush about this basically perfect debut memoir about a queer mixed-race kid growing up in Boca Raton, Florida, with Steve Madden money and an overwhelming number of familial secrets — many of which she is completely unaware of until well into adulthood. Written after her father’s death, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is in many ways Madden’s search for her father, a figure who was at once present in and absent from her childhood. But this book is also about women. It’s about Madden’s mother and her maternal heritage; it’s about friends and girlfriends and awkward lovers; it’s about sisters; it’s about figuring out identity in a family and a world that was itself hidden in so many ways. The essays and vignettes that make up this memoir are so sublimely crafted that you won’t know whether your heart is breaking from the prose or the story. (It’s both.) If you’ve ever felt like you needed to ask questions about your family but couldn’t, or didn’t know what to ask, or even whether you needed to know — this book is for you. (It’s for everyone.)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Danny and his older sister Maeve move into the Dutch House, an opulent mansion once owned by the monied VanHoebeek family. It’s post-WWII Philadelphia, and their father, Cyril, becomes a real estate mogul somewhat by chance. Their mother, Elna, ultimately rejects this new lavish lifestyle and disappears; soon Cyril remarries Andrea, whose interest in wealth far surpasses her interest in family. The plot of this novel has “poor little rich kid” vibes, but there’s no denying that Patchett is a master storyteller, making only necessary observations, nailing dialogue, and stoking empathy in her flawed characters, whom she skillfully sticks with as they age. This is a book about complicated family relationships, (white) class dynamics, and the lifelong impacts of childhood experiences. The paintings of the VanHoebeeks that dominate the rooms of the house act as talismans of the ruling class, and the house itself is a compelling character. It’s a surprisingly captivating read and easy to get lost in — should you be in need of that kind of thing at this time of year.
Family of Origin by CJ Hauser
If you’re looking for a novel about weird sibling relationships, this one’s for you. Elsa and Nolan grew up believing they are biological half siblings. When, as adults, they receive news that their scientist father has drowned off the coast of a remote island on which he’d been living, they decide to search for answers there. Interwoven with flashbacks that explain a lot of the characters' present-day discomfort and awkwardness, the story follows Elsa and Nolan as they meet a quirky community of island-dwellers and a rare species of duck that has its own history and baggage. As the siblings learn more about the people of the island, the ducks, their father, and themselves, they start to come to terms with their shared pasts and present-day hang-ups. At the same time, all the characters try to take stock of what they value, what they do and don’t understand about life on earth, and what it means to live on a rapidly changing planet where life as we know it cannot go on. It’s a fascinating confluence of narratives, which calls into question the very meaning of family.
Naked: The Rhythm and Groove of It. The Depth and Length to It. by Nastashia Minto
One of the most underrated books of 2019, this poetic, lyrical memoir is all about stripping down and looking at the truth of family, legacy, body, and identity. Minto’s relationship with members of her family — specifically her mother and grandparents — is painful, difficult, and tender at once. This book is also about found family, which is something crucial to many who come from a background that includes domestic and/or societal violence. The prose in this 103-page gemstone of a book, Minto’s debut, is on fire. She has an educational background in psychology, which might lend to the deep empathy with which she approaches each person in this book. Naked will resonate with any reader who has ever felt estranged from someone they love, someone who made them who they are — including, maybe, themselves.
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
The former BuzzFeed News editor has serious chops when it comes to writing those gut-punch sentences, the ones that show up unexpectedly and wash you with so much awe, so much emotion, that you're left thinking, What the hell, Saeed? How did you do that? That's a rare gift for a reader, and this book is worth reading for this reason alone. But it's also just a really good, tight story: one of a gay black kid (and his mother), an adolescent who uses sex as self-medication and self-harm at once, and a man who finds himself in the unexpected and relentless waves of grief. The core of Jones’ debut memoir is his relationship with his mother and how close, yet sometimes fraught, it was. Their relationship, her physical illness, her personality, and most of all her expansive love shaped Jones in significant ways — even in areas that aren’t immediately obvious. Read this if you want to get lost in an all too short, gorgeous flame of a memoir that will make you think about your own family.
The Lost Sister by Andrea Gunraj
Canadian author Gunraj’s sophomore novel is set in late-’90s Toronto and in 1930s and ’40s Nova Scotia. Part mystery, part historical fiction, part friend and sister story, the book opens on the night 13-year-old Alisha’s 15-year-old sister, Diana, disappears. Alisha and Diana live with their Guyanese immigrant parents in a diverse neighborhood of Toronto. When Diana’s body is found, Alisha carries a secret guilt about what she knows of her death. In the throes of her grief and shame, Alisha befriends an older woman named Paula, whose own story of being stolen from her mother, along with her little sister, and being put into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children is told in alternating chapters. As Alisha and Paula navigate their friendship, they attempt to reckon with what it means to be and to love a sister, how to come to terms with hard truths, and how to heal.
Homesick by Jennifer Croft
Another book about sisters and language, this is one from Croft, a Man Booker–winning translator. Homesick blends memoir and fiction, and that’s not the only line it blurs. It’s the story of Amy and Zoe, sisters two years apart, one of whom (Zoe) lives with chronic seizures and is in and out of hospitals. For this reason, the girls are homeschooled. They both fall in love with their Russian tutor, Sasha; Amy goes to university at age 15. But how their lives remain intertwined at the same time that they veer away from each other is only one of the fascinating aspects of this hybrid memoir. Full of (color!) photographs with sometimes pretentiously intellectual linguistic captions, it’s like an art nerd’s dream Instagram feed with its super-short, super-long-titled chapters written in the third person. The prose reads at once like a dictionary and a poem — making this book a one-of-a-kind volume full of fragmented family drama.
Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur
When Brodeur is 14, her mother wakes her up one night tell her that her husband’s best friend, Ben, has kissed her. What follows is truly a wild game — an elaborate one that lasts years, in which Adrienne is a pawn helping orchestrate an affair between her mother and Ben. The title comes from the fake name of a fake cookbook that Adrienne’s mother, a chef and cookbook author, was ostensibly writing with Ben, a hunter of wild game. It’s a ruse within a ruse, and the secrets, lies, and entanglements grow ever more intricate as Adrienne ages. With themes of unconditional maternal love, the meaning of family, the pain of forgiveness, and the complex gray area of honesty, this memoir is fast-paced and surprising in both its plot and execution. It might be just the ticket for an escapist read that is both disturbing and utterly moving.
On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl
If you’ve ever wanted a sprawling literary Western with queer protagonists, this is your book. On Swift Horses centers on Muriel, a young newlywed, and Julius, her charming brother-in-law. Their bond configures them into a kind of family, even as they live quite far apart. Muriel is unhappy in her marriage in 1950s California, keeping secrets from her husband, Lee, and growing increasingly interested in gambling. Julius follows his wanderlust to Vegas, where he meets a romantic interest, Henry, whom he longs and searches for after he disappears. This is a rare story of a queer family, one made of two people with a strong platonic bond that nourishes them both despite their physical distance, and set in the sweeping landscape of the Western US and Mexico. Because it’s historical fiction, the characters find themselves up against anti-gay violence. But it’s also a gorgeous novel with compelling, complicated queer characters and the multifaceted ways people can love each other, or not.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
A queer Jamaican woman abandons her young daughter to move to New York, undocumented, chasing the woman she loves in this second novel from Dennis-Benn. But that’s just the beginning. As Patsy’s daughter Tru grows up with the pain of that absence, and Patsy learns quickly that life in New York is not at all what she expected, the two women live parallel lives that are more connected than either of them initially realize. Both feel utterly alone in their realities and must make their own families, while still trying in their own ways to find their way back to each other. Patsy spans a decade, telling a layered, nuanced story of flawed characters facing hard questions and harder truths. But it’s also a beautiful meditation on love, resilience, and forgiveness, set against the backdrop of two cities that are characters in themselves. It’s an ultimately epic story that will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like they couldn’t quite connect with their parent or child in the way they wanted, or has ever felt out of place.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Jessa-Lynn Morton is having a time. The love of her life, Brynn, who also happened to be married to her brother, Milo, ran away a year ago. Her father, who taught her everything she knows about taxidermy and life, has just killed himself in the family shop. And her mother has a new creative outlet for her grief — namely, turning the taxidermic animals into erotic art. Then there’s the new gallery owner who breezes into Jessa’s life, and her adolescent niece and nephew, and the peacocks, and the memories, and the alcohol, and the wet, hot Florida air. Mostly Dead Things is a story about parents, art, sex, sexual art, grief, death, love, and messiness both literal and figurative. It’s funny and dark and gross and full of visceral detail and soaring metaphors. Even though you’ll probably be glad you’re not part of this particular family, they will grab your attention and your heart. ●