7 Books About the Lies That Bind Siblings Together
Andy Abramowitz, author of "Darling at the Campsite," on family secrets
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Our relationships with our brothers and sisters are simultaneously history and fiction—in other words, this happened (more or less), and it’s quite a story. Sometimes it’s just a little story, secrets and confidences that are more mundane than epic: “We are the only ones who remember what the house felt like on Sunday mornings. We are the only ones who really know why Mom and Aunt Ruth don’t speak.”
In my new novel Darling at the Campsite, 30-something Rowan is adjusting to the sudden death of his estranged brother. On his best days, Rowan feels lost. But now that his only sibling—that older, wiser kid with whom he once shared a house, a love of Talking Heads, and a common foil (i.e. their mother)—is gone, Rowan feels even more adrift. It hardly matters that the pair hadn’t been close in recent years, because that’s not what siblinghood is about.
Siblinghood is about being there from the beginning. Our brothers and sisters saw us in our unformed state, before we became the people we’d hoped to be (or, let’s be honest, the people we hoped we’d never be). They’re always onto us, the only people over whose eyes we can’t pull the wool.
Novels that center on sibling dynamics have always beckoned to me. I’m drawn in by the insularity, the inside jokes so old and entrenched they’re acknowledged with a shared smile instead of yet another retelling. These books contain discoveries, or perhaps an acceptance of the fact that there will be no discovery, that there is a truth out there that will forever remain elusive. Sometimes it’s just the recognition of having a shared place in the world, a story that is ours and ours alone.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
This sprawling novel follows four siblings as they move through life connected by a harrowing secret: as children, they snuck out of the house together to visit a fortune-teller who claimed to tell each of them the precise date of their death.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
In Eggers’ debut memoir, 21-year-old Dave finds himself forced into the role of parent to his seven-year-old brother Toph when their mother and father both die of cancer a month apart. While Dave has to be guardian and protector to his much younger sibling, one gets the sense that Dave—barely north of childhood himself—understands that he serves Toph best when simply acting as his big brother.
The Position by Meg Wolitzer
Four siblings are bound by the humiliating fact that their parents are famous for having authored a Joy of Sex-type book. Worse, their parents appear all too identifiable in the book’s illustrations. How do you live with that? The premise is rich with comic potential, and there’s plenty of funny, but because it’s Wolitzer, every page lands with poignancy and wisdom.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Ten-year-old Abdullah watches helplessly as his father sells Pari—Abdullah’s beloved sister, only three-years-old—to a wealthy family. Forced to endure the painful separation from his sister, the rest of Abdullah’s life is shaped by this event. Following its characters through the decades in Afghanistan, France, and the United States, it’s a shattering novel about the consequences of brutal choices.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
It’s rarely a compliment to say that a book feels longer than it is (That movie went on for days!), but Lucky Us is packed with so many vivid scenes and resonant characters that when it’s over, you wonder how Bloom got it all in under 300 pages. It’s the story of half-sisters, Eva and Iris, setting out into 1940s America and, as Bloom puts it, “moving forward only because backward wasn’t possible.”
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
The signature Tropper sarcasm abounds, but fundamentally, this book—which involves siblings coming together to mourn the death of their father —is about the healing that emerges organically from being together. Satisfyingly, the book does not aim to be profound, just real, and the interaction among the siblings, all in various states of disrepair, is just as relatable and rewarding as it is funny.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Annie and Buster Fang are not only the children of performance artists, but also reluctant participants in said performance art. Well into adulthood now, they are still trying to find their own way and their own semblance of equilibrium after a childhood sorely lacking in it. It’s madcap and zany, but there’s darkness at the edges as Annie and Buster bond over their need to escape the shadow of their upbringing.