7 Books About Messy Families With Daddy Issues for “Succession” Fans
Nothing binds and blinds us the way our families can
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy’s famed opening line from Anna Karenina is never far from my mind whenever I tune in to watch my favorite white TV family, the Roys of HBO’s Succession, who run an enormous Fox/Disney-like media and entertainment conglomerate. In addition to its razor-sharp wit (seen in its portrayal of the characters’ many flaws and neuroses, as well as their delightfully deranged and hyper-specific insults for one another), Succession is famed for its frank examination of corporate and family power dynamics and the funhouse mirror-like quality with which it satirizes and reflects our own world. While a good portion of the show’s appeal lies in getting to watch a set of ultrarich and deeply unlikable characters being nasty to one another and engaging in various corporate hijinks, its depiction of the real pain, suffering, and emotional rot at the core of the Roy family is startlingly poignant. The Roys’ surface problems are not relatable in the least for most viewers, but the specific dysfunction and unhappiness of each individual character collide to form a potent, combustible cocktail of misery that keeps me coming back again and again.
At the heart of the Roys’ particular brand of family dysfunction is, of course, everyone’s deeply entrenched daddy issues. “I love him, I hate him, I’m gonna outsource it to my therapist,” says once-de facto company heir and now disgraced son Kendall Roy about his father, the domineering and tyrannical Logan Roy. Kendall and his siblings—deluded outsider Connor, self-righteous girlboss Shiv, and enfant terrible Roman—can’t help but revolve around their father in search of his approval, like wobbly planets around a withholding sun. Logan, in turn, plays his children off one another like a seasoned conductor cuing an orchestra, knowing exactly which of their weaknesses to exploit and which of their strengths to cultivate and praise in his never-ending quest for power and control. At the same time, part of the brilliance in Brian Cox’s portrayal of Logan is that we don’t doubt that Logan loves his children, in his own way. But love is besides the point in the world of Succession—an inconvenience at best and a tool to be weaponized at worst.
Power, the lies we tell ourselves and others, and the family ties that both bind and blind us are all things that deeply interest me as a writer and a reader, especially when humor is involved. Succession is a show in which laughter, usually at the expense of others, keeps the pain at bay, and in which none of the characters want to give away their hands, even as they lose game after game. The books below offer their own takes on family dysfunction, daddy issues, and familial power dynamics and how quickly they can change.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Shipstead’s novel is a gently satirical account of a patrician New England wedding weekend gone wrong, seen primarily through the eyes of Winn Van Meter, the embittered father of the bride whose feelings of confused lust (for one of his daughter’s bridesmaids) and social discontent (for a club that won’t accept his membership application) threaten to occlude the success of the wedding.
At its heart, the novel is also a send-up of masculinity, snobbery, and what Succession’s Roy siblings would call “sad sack wasp traps”—social affairs convened by the moneyed and/or titled primarily for the goal of seeing and being seen. Elegantly written, with a keen eye for the quirks and customs of New England WASP families, Seating Arrangements is perfect entertainment for anyone who enjoys watching rich white people behaving badly.
Family Trust by Kathy Wang
Kathy Wang’s Family Trust is an exploration of the lives of a Chinese American immigrant family in Silicon Valley, in the wake of the news that their wealthy patriarch, Stanley Huang, is dying. As they prepare for the details of his estate to be revealed, each family member—his son Fred, a Harvard MBA grad convinced that he is meant for loftier things than his mid-level corporate investment job; his daughter Kate, who supports her family while her entrepreneur husband struggles to get his start-up off the ground; his much-younger second wife, Mary, who is beginning to chafe under the demands of his care; and his tough, pragmatic first wife Linda, who has begun dating again in her 70s—must grapple with the long-simmering tensions, envy, and unspoken resentments that have built up around their lives. Wang’s novel shines in its description of not only the family’s dynamics, but also its depiction of Silicon Valley, where fortunes can be made and lost seemingly overnight and an outward indifference to appearances masks an obsession with status.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, a coming-of-age story and a portrait of a most unusual family, is as unforgettable as it is funny. Lockwood writes deftly and hilariously about her father, a former Lutheran pastor turned married Catholic priest with many eccentric habits, including wearing only underwear (or full priest regalia) at home, drinking cream liqueurs throughout the day, and bellowing nonsequiturs at his television. She presents these foibles alongside his more troubling flaws, including his domineering nature and selfishness, without malice or judgment, while also assessing the very real trauma of growing up in a conservative, highly patriarchal childhood:
“Sometimes, when the ceiling seems especially low and the past especially close, I think to myself, I did not make it out. I am still there in that place of diminishment, where that voice an octave deeper than mine is telling me what I am.”
Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Much like Connell’s 1959 novel, Mrs. Bridge, a quietly stunning character study about a timid upper-middle-class Kansas City housewife, Mr. Bridge—a companion novel published ten years later—is about the big little moments of life, the seemingly insignificant hinges upon which a life can turn, or turn in on itself. Mr. Bridge, an ambitious lawyer whose work ethic assures his family’s prosperity, hides from his wife and children behind a newspaper and a veneer of conservative respectability, barely responding to their bids for his attention while simultaneously yearning for their approval and love. Connell’s touch is light, but the impact of all these little moments is weighty. Mr. Bridge vacillates between moments of humor and pain, showing us an emotionally stunted man who is convinced that material success as a provider takes precedence over connecting with the people around him.
Family of Origin by CJ Hauser
In CJ Hauser’s novel, two estranged adult siblings must come together in the aftermath of their biologist father’s accidental death to collect his belongings from his research station off the Gulf Coast. Elsa and Nolan Grey’s father was a once-revered scientist whose professional reputation went south after he aligned himself with the Reversalists, a ragtag group of scientists who believe that evolution is now going backwards.
As the siblings come to terms with their complicated feelings about their brilliant, emotionally distant father, they too find themselves going backwards, revisiting their shared memories and trying to determine where it all went wrong. “They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells,” Hauser writes of the Greys. “They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. They were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.”
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Written in an incantatory, otherworldly style that is reflective of its child protagonist’s perspective, We the Animals is a deeply felt novel about childhood joys and traumas, as well as the powerful hold that our families can have on us long after we’ve left them or they’ve left us. Told in vignettes from the perspective of a young half-white, half-Puerto Rican boy growing up in rural upstate New York with his two older brothers and his troubled parents, who married in their teens and have a tumultuous relationship with each other and with their children, Torres’s novel reads like a series of snapshots that leave nothing out—some blurry, some beautiful, some excruciating. The first time I read it, I was particularly moved by Torres’s description of the complexities of brotherly bonds:
“They hated me for my good grades, for my white ways. All at once they were disgusted, and jealous, and deeply protective, and deeply proud. Look at us, our last night together, when we were brothers still.”
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
After being unceremoniously broken up with by her fiance, Goodbye Vitamin’s Ruth comes home for Christmas for the first time in years to find that her father Howard, a history professor, is losing his memory and has become increasingly erratic, and, consequently, has been fired from his teaching position. Ruth’s mother asks her to move back home for a year to help care for him. Excerpts from Howard’s old journal entries, in which he recorded things Ruth said as a child, are peppered throughout the novel. Ruth in turn begins cataloguing her father’s days with tender precision, noting his good and bad moments.
As the novel continues, she recalls the ways in which her father’s failings—alcoholism, past affairs with other professors and grad students—mirror her own inability to face life’s realities and truths. Ironically, it’s in lying to her father that Ruth begins to find purpose as his caregiver, when one of his former graduate students comes to her with the idea to stage pretend classes for her father to teach, in order to give shape to his days. While the ruse doesn’t last, the wisdom and tenderness of this slim novel lingers long after its last page, as do the questions it asks us about memory, forgiveness, and what is passed down within families.