13 Novels & Generational Sagas About Family Drama, Secrets, and Dysfunction
Family can be a tricky thing, and as someone with a small nuclear family, I’ve always been fascinated by sprawling families. Of course, being a reader, where else can one find a window into lives they’ll never live? Books of course! It goes then that I enjoy reading books about large families, winding generations, and all the dysfunction that can happen in a family.
These 13 books are some of my favourite books about families. I’ve LOVED all but one, which I thought was OK. Whether you’re looking for stories about African families, Middle Eastern families, American families, or Asian(-American) families, there’s a book for you on this list.
If you want to travel the world, try...
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
“On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck.” Salt Houses follows a Palestinian family uprooted by war and explores the heartaches caused by war and loss as they move from Palestine to Beirut and Boston amongst other places.
Everyone I’ve recommended this book to has enjoyed it. Even Chimamanda raved about Salt Houses during one of her appearances, so I’m happy to keep preaching the gospel of this book to everyone in need of a book recommendation. Hala Alyan writes beautifully and the Yacoubs are hard to forget.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
If you loved Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (we recommended that here), you may also enjoy his third novel. I liked this one but not as much as his debut. This novel with a staggering number of characters and storylines may be best suited for readers with serious endurance, although it pays off in the end.
“Crossing generations and continents, moving from Kabul, to Paris, to San Francisco, to the Greek island of Tinos, with profound wisdom, depth, insight and compassion, Khaled Hosseini writes about the bonds that define us and shape our lives, the ways in which we help our loved ones in need, how the choices we make resonate through history and how we are often surprised by the people closest to us.”
Come for the family, stay for the dysfunction...
The Heirs by Susan Riegers
I read this book in one sitting! “Six months after Rupert Falkes dies, leaving a grieving widow and five adult sons, an unknown woman sues his estate, claiming she had two sons by him.”
Susan Riegers' storytelling is incredibly moving and funny. She deeply explores all the major characters in this story, something I find many authors struggle with. So if nothing else, at the end of this book, you will come away with a fully rounded awareness of all the characters that matter.
From lifelong yearning to personality dissection and family dysfunction, The Heirs is rich look into the lives of a wealthy family with more secrets than they will ever know.
Family Trust by Kathy Wang
On the surface, the Huangs are like any other wealthy Chinese-American family. However, a few chapters into Kathy Wang's Family Trust, the reader can tell that this isn't the case. When Stanley Huang, the family's patriarch is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the already present cracks in the lives of the family members—his children, ex-wife, and wife—begin to widen, as selfish motives are revealed and family secrets are exposed.
This one is a slow read for the first 70 percent or so—patient readers only! Still, there's a juicy amount of family drama in this novel and although all but a couple of the main characters are unlikeable, Family Trust addresses so many important issues from male selfishness in marriages and relationships, the crazy world of the filthy rich, and the challenges of aging.
Families in recovery…
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
I read this book so long ago, and I recognize that Selasi’s poetic and sometimes choppy writing style may not be for everyone, but I love this book. It’s really one of those ones you either hate or love, but if you make it through the first 20 percent, you’re good to go!
“In the wake of Kweku’s death, his children gather in Ghana at their enigmatic mother’s new home. The eldest son and his wife; the mysterious, beautiful twins; the baby sister, now a young woman: each carries secrets of his own. What is revealed in their coming together is the story of how they came apart: the hearts broken, the lies told, the crimes committed in the name of love.”
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray
This is a recent release that I really liked—lots of family secrets, but also many serious issues explored.The novel opens as community pillars Althea and her husband Proctor are in jail awaiting sentencing for defrauding the government and citizens of their town. After a major flood, Althea and Proctor ran charity fundraisers and then invested those funds in their restaurant.
Care and Feeding follows their sentencing, simultaneously peeling back the layers of the couple's life, from their meeting as children to the present. The book also focuses on Althea's relationships with her siblings and daughters, Kim and “Baby Vi.” If you’re looking for something with family, love, secrets, and betrayal, this engaging drama may be the one.
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
This book was one of the most raved about books of 2018—and rightly so. “A Place for Us unfolds the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered together in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia's, wedding—a match of love rather than tradition. It is here, on this momentous day, that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years.
Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices and betrayals that lead to their son's estrangement.” The power of this novel is in the way this family tugs at your heartstrings, creates a storm of emotions in your stomach and breaks your heart in quick succession. It is a powerful, often uncomfortable look at the mistakes parents can make, the ways family can make or break us and how our insecurities can change our lives.
High stakes drama
Harmattan Rain by Ayesha Harruna Attah
If you’re looking for an easy-to-read drama centred around life in Ghana, family secrets, three generations of women, try this one! “Harmattan Rain follows three generations of women as they cope with family, love and life. A few years before Ghana’s independence, Lizzie-Achiaa’s lover disappears. Intent on finding him, she runs away from home.
Akua Afriyie, Lizzie-Achiaa’s first daughter, strikes out on her own as a single parent in a country rocked by successive coups. Her daughter, Sugri grows up overprotected. She leaves home for university in New York, where she learns that sometimes one can have too much freedom. In the end, the secrets parents keep from their children eventually catch up with them.”
Diamond Head by Cecily Wong
A soaring family saga, this book is an emotional rollercoaster, deeply engrossing and so true to life. “At the turn of the nineteenth-century, Frank Leong, a fabulously wealthy shipping industrialist, moves his family from China to the island of Oahu. But something ancient follows the Leongs to Hawaii, haunting them.
When Frank is murdered, his family is thrown into a perilous downward spiral. Left to rebuild in their patriarch’s shadow, the surviving members of the Leong family try their hand at a new, ordinary life, vowing to bury their gilded past. Still, the island continues to whisper—fragmented pieces of truth and chatter, until a letter arrives two decades later, carrying a confession that shatters the family even further.”
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This book is so engrossing and riveting! Someone told me it was just like a soap opera and I agree—in the best way possible. Lee says in her acknowledgment that the book was thirty years in the making and it shows. It is so well researched and yet the history is not its complete focus.
Pachinko is the story of a Korean family who moves to Japan and their lives as they are discriminated against by the Japanese. A true family saga that will leave you hooked for the most part. Apple TV is making a series out of the 496 page book. If that isn’t a saga, I don’t know what is.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
This book made me laugh and tear up; just feel. It is remarkable how much love can come from/in spite of imperfect circumstances. “One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.
Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.”
If you like rich African history
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I feel like everyone has read this novel, but if you haven’t, it’s worth checking out—especially if you’re interested in the slave trade. “Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle.
Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle's dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast's booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia's descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America.”
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Kintu is a sprawling work of fiction laced with history! My favorite thing about this story is honestly the history. It's a bit more mythical than I'd expected, but after reading, I was fascinated anew by heritage. Kintu left me wishing I could trace my own lineage and return to the places my ancestors began in the 1700's.
Essentially, the novel is “Uganda’s history reimagined through the cursed bloodline of the Kintu clan in an award-winning debut.”
You can find full reviews of these books on my Goodreads, but hopefully one or two here have sparked your interest! I’d love to hear your thoughts about these books if you’ve read any, and I’m also open to any suggestions of books centred around a family or following one over decades.
What topics do you enjoy reading about in your fiction picks? History? Love? Friendships? Let me know! I’m definitely a sucker for families and friendships.
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