7 Novels About Families That Break the Mold
Maura Roosevelt, great-granddaughter of FDR, recommends books on atypical family arrangements
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
I grew up in a loud and busy home, where more people were considered kin than just my blood-relations. I have two sisters, but when I was a kid my parents had a sort of open-door policy, and we often had cousins or family friends or my parents’ colleagues staying with us — sometimes for months at a time. Although I frequently had to share a bed in order to make room for the extra people, I loved the raucous nature of the household, and I came to view many of our long-term visitors as family members whose exact relationship to me was difficult to describe.
My novel, Baby of the Family, was partially inspired by the question of how families function and thrive when they are not comprised of two straight married parents with two children close in age. The book centers on three half-siblings from three (out of four!) separate marriages that their father had. These characters struggle to form relationships with one another that feel meaningful, while also endeavoring to come to terms with how their atypical family structure affects their adult decisions.
I firmly believe that all families carry with them rich histories and myths, but the stories from blended, bifurcated, and atypical families contain a layer of complexity that can be utterly fascinating. Here are some books that illuminate the highs and lows of these types of families:
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
This is, to my mind, the prime American blended family novel. The dad from one family gets wasted at a daytime suburban house party, kisses the mother from another family, and then, several years later, the step-siblings spend their summers together in one wild crew, creating memories and secrets that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. The story is expansive, and by the end of it the reader has passed through several decades and gets to view those children as adults, witnessing where the events of their childhoods have brought them.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
This novel is based at a hippie commune, named Arcadia, and paints a vivid picture of the life of Bit, who was the first child born at the commune. While five-year-old Bit struggles to understand the relationship his two parents share in the midst of the larger group, he also lives amongst the other children and adults of Arcadia as if they were one giant family. The reader follows Bit as he grows up, with sections dedicated to him as a teenager and then as an adult, all illuminating how the relationships he formed at the commune both haunt him and bring him love for the rest of his life.
The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
Doctorow constructs an unforgettable story told from the perspective of Daniel, the oldest son of a family (called the Isaacsons in the book) who are based on real-life Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the married couple who were executed by the US government for being spies from the Soviet Union. In the novel, Daniel is adopted by a couple named the Lewins, and spends various stretches of his life trying to sort out how his family history affected him as a child and an adult, while simultaneously struggling to take care of his younger biological sister who suffers from severe depression.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Hurruna Attah
This fascinating novel set in 19th century Ghana illuminates the social class status that surrounded the slave trade in the region, and how families were both destroyed and reconstructed in light of this evil business. The story is about Wurche, the privileged daughter of a noble family, and Aminah, the daughter of a once-happy middle class family that was subject to a brutal raid and then pushed into the slave trade. Wurche purchases Aminah, and they come together with other relatives to form a disturbing, vicious, type of atypical family.
The Girls by Emma Cline
The Girls offers a scary and fantastic look into what can happen when an alternative family arrangement is not a healthy one. The central character of this book, Evie, is swept into a cult that is based on the real-life Manson family cult, but manages to stay on the periphery of the action throughout, and acts as a somewhat objective observer of the cult’s interpersonal relationships. Of course, the girls of the cult are all brainwashed by the Manson-like male leader, but they also become like corrupting sisters, occasionally protecting each other but more often manipulating each other out of ill-will. Even the children these girls bear are supposed to be shared amongst the cult members as communal family members.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Krauss’ astonishingly good second novel is a complex, weaving tale about familial love, loss, and the sentimental — almost holy — nature of literature. In one of two central storylines, a young man named Leo impregnates his wife Alma before he goes into hiding during the holocaust. Years after the war, he searches and finds Alma, only to discover that she had assumed him dead, married another man, and given birth to another son with her new husband. In the other, parallel, storyline, the father of a young girl (also named Alma) dies and as the teenage daughter struggles to deal with her deeply sad mother, her biological brother becomes convinced that they in fact have different fathers.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
While this magnificent novel is certainly about the atrocities that WWII brought upon Europe and its citizens, the relationship between a young French girl named Marie-Laure and her father, as well as the bond between a young orphaned German boy named Werner and his sister, also make this novel a study of how familial relationships endure and change when other family members have passed away. All the Light We Cannot See illuminates the particular kind of love that the members of very small families hold for one another.