8 Novels About Families Falling Apart

All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family has its own breaking point

A silhouette of a family holding hands against the backdrop of an orange sunset.
Photo by Mike Scheid via Unsplash

In the very early drafts of my debut novel, Rootless, Efe took center stage. As a Ghanaian teenager moving to London and sinking under the weight of her family’s hopes, dreams and expectations, it was clear to me that Efe had a story to tell. But it wasn’t until later that I realized Efe’s story wasn’t as limited as it seemed. It was a bigger story about a family that was careening towards a breaking point, a family that is fracturing and falling apart.  

In Rootless, it isn’t just Efe’s choices that cause this breakdown in family relationships. Instead, the choices of her husband Sam, and those of their family members all ripple outwards, combining and building over the decades until cracks are formed. Each family member damaged the unit in their own way.  

Family stories are complex and nuanced. What I love most is that there’s rarely an obvious villain. Instead, each person is remarkably human, doing the best they can, but often hurting each other along the way.

I’ve encountered many incredible families that are falling apart in fiction. Here are the ones that grabbed me and refused to let me go:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The novel follows Stella and Desiree, identical twin sisters who run away as teenagers and go on to live totally different lives. One sister eventually returns to the town she tried to escape and lives with her Black daughter. The other sister secretly passes as white, and her white husband and daughter know nothing of her past. Despite the different paths the twins have taken and the ways their relationship has fractured, their lives are still intertwined. It’s an intricate and complicated story all about identity, race and expectations.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

The novel opens with the death of Kweku, the long-absent patriarch of the Nigerian-Ghanaian Sai family, and chronicles all the ways Kweku’s heart fractures when he’s estranged from his immediate family. At the start of the novel, his ex-wife and grown-up children are spread out across America and the family has been quietly estranged for years, but his death brings them back together again and forces them to confront a multitude of family secrets.

Memphis by Tara Stringfellow

Memphis focuses on the lives of four women across three generations. First, there’s Miriam, who flees to the city to escape her abusive husband; her oldest daughter Joan, the artist of the family; her half-sister August, who leaps off the page; and Hazel, the matriarch of the family who looms large even though she isn’t alive for most of the novel. This family is very much broken at the start of the novel, but witnessing their journey towards growth and healing was incredible.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

 The God of Small Things is such a beautifully complex novel. For the most part, the novel follows twins Rahel and Esta, growing up comfortably in Kerala, India amid political unrest. It’s also about their wider family, including their cousin Sophie Mol, mother Amma and the secrets and corruption that exist in their family and community— all of which will tear the family apart. 

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Set in the 1970s in a small town in Ohio, the novel follows the Lee family as they attempt to put themselves back together after the death of 16-year-old Lydia Lee. Back when Lydia was alive, she was the favorite child of both her parents, which is far from as good as it sounds. The novel explores everything leading up to Lydia’s death and the aftermath as the family seeks answers to what really happened. 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

After the phenomenon of her debut novel, Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi gifted readers with a smaller, but surefooted and intimate novel. Gifty is the daughter of parents that immigrated from Ghana to Alabama. Years later, she is alone in the U.S., a PhD student trying to make sense of her brother’s opioid addiction and subsequent death, her family a shadow of what it used to be.  

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Ayobami Adebayo’s first novel broke my heart and put it back together again. It opens with Yejide, who is childless several years into marriage and humiliated when her husband’s family insist he takes a second wife to ensure his lineage continues. From the outside, that looks like the moment their family would begin to fall apart, but that’s only the beginning of their story. The book is full of unexpected turns, twists and surprises. It’s a novel about love as it tries again and again to defy the odds. 

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

The School for Good Mothers is a novel about families, but particularly parenthood with a speculative twist. On one very bad day, Frida Liu leaves her toddler, Harriet, home alone for a few hours. Frida is caught and given the choice: she can be re-educated and learn how to be a “good mother” or lose custody of Harriet forever. This novel presents an interesting commentary on the expectations placed on fathers compared to mothers, while following the many different parents trying to save their families as they fall apart 

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