10 Novels About Family Gatherings Gone Bad
Think your holiday meal is awkward? It could be so much worse
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Fiction has no shortage of unhappy families — since they’re all unhappy differently, there’s a lot to write about. Chronicling the ups and downs of various familial groups has been the goal of many a novelist — and, over the years, it’s led to countless stories about family gatherings gone awry. Some books tell the tale of a dysfunctional family falling into outright conflict over the course of a meeting or meal; others use explosive arguments or discord to expose a deep fissure within an otherwise healthy family.
Here’s a look at ten novels featuring family gatherings gone memorably awry–from the comic to the tragic to the decidedly surreal.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Sometimes, getting together with families reminds us of the flaws of those who we’re related to; sometimes, they remind us of our own inadequacies. The title characters in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel experience all of the above as they struggle with the legacy of their father and of their own wildly different approaches to life.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
If we’re talking about family meals gone awry, there’s a very special place at the table for Shirley Jackson’s Gothic classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A fateful family dinner is at the root of many of the novel’s strange conflicts, and the precursor to its haunting mood of isolation and alienation.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
The title character of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a woman who, one day, decides that she no longer wishes to eat meat. To say that the people closest to her are bewildered by this decision is something of an understatement; it leads to a series of strange acts of violence, shifts in identity, and one of the most harrowing fictional family dinners in recent memory.
Problems, Jade Sharma
Thanksgiving festivities can make for a host of squirm-worthy moments, from discussions about politics to unexpected intrusions of food allergies. And then there’s the Thanksgiving featured in Jade Sharma’s Problems, which raises the bar of in-law awkwardness to a new level when the novel’s heroin-addicted protagonist travels with her husband to visit his family for the holiday.
O Fallen Angel, Kate Zambreno
Nearly every variation on the traditional American nuclear family is turned on its head in Kate Zambreno’s haunting, stylized novel O Fallen Angel. Here, the bonds between parents and children are chillingly frayed, family meals are occasions for excess, and the difficulty that different generations have in communicating with one another brings tragic effects.
The Hundred Brothers, Donald Antrim
Many family gatherings are inspired by unpleasant events. The title characters in Donald Antrim’s wonderfully bizarre novel are brought together by the death of their father. The hundred siblings gathered together is your first clue that this isn’t a strictly realistic novel–in fact, it takes numerous turns into increasing levels of surrealism, even as it explores familial dynamics and long-standing resentments.
Bright Lines, Tanwi Nandini Islam
Early on in Tanwi Nandini Islam’s novel Bright Lines, there’s a scene of familial discord as dinner is prepared. Reading it may stir familiar memories of intergenerational clashes between parents and children. It’s a dissonant moment in a novel that explores both sides of familial connections: how they can lead to conflict, but also how they can bring people together.
Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn
Few contemporary writers describe imploding families and the long legacy of trauma with the skill and style of Edward St. Aubyn. For his novel Dunbar, he reimagined King Lear as the story of an aging media mogul with three daughters, and ups the amount of familial dysfunction to an operatic level. The result is a story at once familiar and revitalized.
The Crow Road, Iain Banks
Iain Banks’s novel The Crow Road traces the diverging pathways within a sprawling Scottish family, exploring questions of art, skepticism, belief, and mortality along the way. At the center of the book is a clash between father and son in which their differing views on atheism spark a conflict that runs throughout much of the novel.
Darkansas, Jarret Middleton
In Jarret Middleton’s Darkansas, the tensions and frustrations found at most family gatherings are accentuated by the uncanny — it emerges that the protagonist’s family includes a pair of twins in each generation, one of whom is destined to kill the other. And on the periphery is a sinister duo with a vested interest in seeing destiny run its course, heightening things dramatically.