10 Novels About the Drama of Working for the Family Business
There's more at stake when the boundaries between family, money, and work don't exist
When we think of a family business, what springs to mind first is probably a straightforward, even heteronormative, structure: a commercial concern (hardware store; funeral home; shipping firm) passing from parent to child (usually meaning, under patriarchal and capitalist tradition, from father to son). And there are plenty of opportunities for conflict in this simple structure—after all, it depends on children behaving as employees; parents acting as managers; siblings jockeying for promotion. (How does one give one’s daughter a lukewarm performance review? Is it possible to rage-quit one’s family?)
But there is also an infinite world of messiness to tap in stories of family business, beyond this relatively straightforward drama of the play of power between (literal) corporate families. One way to describe my novel Glassworks is as a story of a family business that doesn’t know it’s a family business: each generation of the Novak family thinks they’re striking out on their own, choosing independence, rejecting their predecessors’ legacies; but again and again they end up drawn to the same patterns, the same foundational elements—in their occupations, in their relationships, and in the muddy spaces between the two.
For better and for worse, what we do for a living often has a controlling stake in our waking hours, our mental health, and our identity. Wherever this also gets mixed up with the drama of family—duty and rebellion, guilt and pride, love and resentment—there’s bound to be a fascinating story ahead.
Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken
There is a brick-and-mortar family business in this excellent novel of late vaudeville and early Hollywood: Sharp & Son’s Gents’ Furnishings, of Valley Junction, Iowa. Mose Sharp, the eponymous Son (and only boy among six sisters—his father has the store’s sign repainted upon his arrival), is fiercely determined to escape his professional and filial destiny. But even running away to make it as a song-and-dance man, he can’t quite shake the destiny (or is it a curse?) to ply a family trade—whether it’s devoting himself to a doomed double act with his sister Hattie; growing so close to his professional partner that he sees all their films as love stories; or being haunted at every turn (no matter how ancient the guilt, and how successful his showbiz career) by the shadow-self that should be behind the counter in his father’s store. Besides this prodigal son, McCracken gives us beautiful moments with all those sisters—Annie, for instance, who covets Sharp & Son herself and who’s done “everything an heir should have except been born a boy.”
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Stevens, a quintessential “real English butler” looking back on his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, confronts long-buried doubts about his lordly employer’s legacy (and his own complicity in it). There’s already a fascinating sense of “family business” to this story—it’s difficult, after all, to think of an occupation with worse work/life balance than butler to an aristocratic country house. But in the most harrowing section of the book (which is saying something), Stevens hires his own father as under-butler. It quickly becomes clear to the rest of the staff—particularly housekeeper Miss Kenton—that “Mr Stevens senior” is in physical and mental decline. The compartmentalization and denial required for Stevens to project-manage his father’s senescence and rapidly failing health while on the clock, and under threat of constant interruption from their pampered upper-crust employers, lead to more than a few scenes so tense you’ll have to read through your fingers.
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
I could have as easily listed Fowler’s earlier novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in which (without giving too much away) sisterhood is harnessed as a behavioral science experiment. But I had to give the edge to Booth, which has haunted me in its genre-bending layers—a novel told from many perspectives, about the family of John Wilkes Booth. Many of the Booth siblings are Shakespearean actors (following in their father’s deadbeat footsteps), and they compete bitterly, onstage and off—for roles; for applause; for the next line. And then, of course, there is the trouble with Johnny. Fowler’s treatment of the Lincoln assassination (the inevitable gravitational center of the book, even before the reader cracks the cover) is masterful on a craft level—and with remarkable modern resonance we see the Booth family navigate another set of public performances, at once competitive and collaborative, as they are forced to transition to an entirely different type of household name.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
This cult classic takes the notion of a “family business” to grotesque extremes, with carnival barkers Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski experimenting with radioisotopes, arsenic, and toxic potions of all descriptions to ensure their children can double as their sideshow exhibits. Sibling rivalry thrives, to say the least, among the Binewski clan (Arturo the Aquaboy; Iphy and Elly the Siamese twins; Olympia, our hunchback narrator; and telekinetic Chick). The small-town America carnival circuit bears witness to their Machiavellian power struggles and the sometimes equally disturbing displays of love that tumble headlong into obsession, with the whole plot literally powered by the ashes of the carnival’s founder and Binewski patriarch—Grandpa’s urn is bolted to the hood of the midway’s generator truck.
Trust by Hernan Diaz
Without revealing too much about a novel that relies on its unexpected turns, I can say that each of Trust’s four sections is concerned with families in business together—chief among those “businesses” being the purest distillation of American capitalism itself, in the robber-baron age of pince-nez and unregulated markets. Partners become collaborators become accomplices; parents and children betray one another and their own ideals for the sake of their next project. The tension at the heart of many of the novels on this list is that between duty and transaction on one side, and love (or rebellion) on the other—there’s one painfully beautiful version of this in Trust, with the character Ida’s father refusing to accept a gift from her without offering her a penny as “payment”—narrating as an old woman, Ida says, “I still have the penny that saved us.”
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This novel of simultaneously epic scope and deep intimacy runs from eighteenth-century Ghana to the present day, rendering three hundred years’ and two continents’ worth of history in one family’s intricately complex lineage. Generations of descendants work together, and sometimes at odds—farming, fighting, mining, singing; shouldering trauma and striving for peace. From the opening pages, where both marrying and enslaving neighbors are used as strategies for surviving English colonialism, Gyasi examines the inextricable webs of choice and necessity, the relationships both filial and transactional, the fractal spiral of cause and effect that drives nations’ histories no less than individuals.
True Biz by Sara Nović
Among much else, this novel set at the River Valley School for the Deaf is about what happens when the boundaries collapse between work (or activism) and family. February, the headmistress at River Valley, lives on campus with her wife—an arrangement under threat on multiple fronts, both professional and domestic. The chronic simmer of their work/life tension lends dignity to the parallel dormitory dramas of their adolescent charges. Then there are the dynamics of Austin’s family—legends at River Valley, with Austin fifth-generation Deaf on his mother’s side. Austin’s hearing father works as an ASL interpreter, slipping between practiced neutrality in his role as a professional communicator, and full-blown participation in the emotional conflicts of their family life—particularly now that Austin’s newborn baby sister has just sent shockwaves through the house by passing her first hearing test.
Other Names for Love by Taymour Soomro
A different kind of story about the desperation that drives, and the duty that harries, a prodigal child. Fahad’s brutally charismatic father, Rafik, is determined to toughen up his sensitive son—readying him to inherit his legacies as cabinet minister and landowner of a rural estate in up-country Pakistan, and to defend them against threats from hungry competitors (including extended family). But dysfunction and failure are braided into both traditions, politics and land management, and Rafik’s rabid dedication to his legacy is no guarantee of its longevity. The scale of this deceptively quiet novel is large, and there are in fact many families’ livelihoods caught up in the consequences of Rafik and Fahad’s conflict. “We are your children,” protests one of the farmers who works the family’s land. “Who shall I punish then,” Rafik replies, “if not my children?”
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
This novel, set in an alternate post-Soviet Russia, has the mesmerizing symmetry and logic of a folktale. Twin brothers Dima and Yarik work opposite shifts expanding the Oranzheria—an enormous greenhouse that, paired with the satellite mirrors that keep the city of Petroplavilsk in twenty-four-hour daylight, squeeze maximum efficiency from nature itself. Work is now both the only thing the brothers have in common and the thing that keeps them ruthlessly separated on opposing schedules—until an encounter with the mogul who owns the Oranzheria changes everything. Dima and Yarik become “the poster boys for opposing ideologies”—one drifting into anarchy to become a folk hero of the resistance; the other rising from promotion to promotion until he’s a modern icon of oligarchy.
Dombey & Son by Charles Dickens
An inevitable ancestor of every other book on this list, Dombey & Son is the tale of a hopelessly proud man unable to distinguish his firm from his family (and who therefore dismisses his daughter as entirely worthless). But besides the cold calculations of the title characters/business, Dickens offers us a bouquet of other examples of families “at home in public”—from the many, many characters who literally live at their places of work; to Polly Toodle, the wet nurse who balances longing for her own family with her occupation nursing baby Paul; to the Carker brothers, whose birth order is reversed in their positions at work, leading to scenes of dark comedy with the brother “Senior in years, but Junior in the house” bullied by his malicious younger sibling; to Mr. Dombey tasking his most obsequious clerk with communicating with his own wife, in a new “professional” role as the “organ of [Dombey’s] displeasure.”