9 Stories About Family Conflict

Brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters — fiction about fighting with the ones you love

Even in the case of their absence, families shape us in ways that are indelible. There are few goals more motivating than the pride of a parent, and there are few relationships more empowering—or volatile—than siblinghood. Families take so many different forms, have so many branches and offshoots within single generations, that Tolstoy’s logic feels increasingly dated: happy families can be so in wonderfully unique ways. In a toast of sorts to families of all kinds, we’ve unlocked nine stories from the Recommended Reading archives, with writing by the likes of Anna Noyes, Jodi Angel, Charles Baxter, Tara Ison, Lucy Corin and more.

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This is Who She Was by Anna Noyes

Recommended by Charles Baxter

Anna Noyes takes us on a family vacation with the narrator and her still fresh boyfriend, Luke. There’s nothing like a road trip to bring people together, she supposes, but the narrator finds herself growing closer to Luke’s mother than her actual partner. Luke’s mother, Ruth, is a life-loving woman that sees the narrator in a way that the others do not. This is a story about the unexpected mothers and daughters we meet in other.

Three Sisters by Maria Toklander

Recommended by Stonecutter

In the unnamed marshlands of rural Australia, transformed into fable-like by an unknown force, there are three sisters living together. “Takolander’s creations are taciturn, mythic creatures; weathered statues amidst total ruin,” writes Kaite Raissian in the introduction. “And though the sisters are ‘spoken for’ by the story’s narrator, and ‘spoken at’ by the two male figures in the tale, they are still formidable presences — business people, the last vestiges of an area that nature and poverty have otherwise vanquished.” In this somewhat post-apocalyptic world, the reader leaves feeling like they have seen themselves in this trinity, and they are better because of it.

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All the Keys to All the Doors by Clare Beams

Recommended by Meghan Mayhew Bergman

Clare Beams invites us to visit the families and mother of Middleford, “a tablecloth of a town, stretched loose and green over gentle New England hills.” But the idyllic town is struck by tragedy that claims the lives of schoolchildren, and Cele, the elderly, unofficial mother of Middleford, is looked to for guidance. This story follows the different ways tragedy can strike the individual — the witness, the leader, the family, the mothers—some expectant others in mourning. How can a town be a family to those whose families have been broken?

The Daughters by Adrienne Celt

Recommended by Tara Ison

“Lulu,” an excerpt from Adrienne Celt’s The Daughters, tells a story of the titular girl and her mother’s trip to the Chicago Civic Opera House. The trip is initially dreamy and exciting, Lulu is taken to her namesake play and her mother is thrilled to show her the world of the opera. But the excursion quickly turns sour when the mother is forced to watch the world in which she used to be a star. “The roles we play, the costumes we wear, the tales we tell each other and ourselves… how else to reconcile our longing for fanciful escape with our desperate need for authentic, of-this-earth affection and love?” Tara Ison asks in the introduction.

The Theory of Everything by Steven Schwartz

Recommended by Robert Boswell

“My son is fearful. Not scared. Scared is all right. I was scared during the war, but fearful is something else,” Steven Schwartz’s narrator tells us of his son, Rex, a father himself who is consistently absent from his children’s lives. If families are our first source of history, great fiction is a means of apprehending that past, of framing and understanding it. This is a story about trying to be a parent, and trying to be a son.

Punching Jackie by Matt Sumell

Recommended by Electric Literature

Welcome to the stream of consciousness of a guilty brother. After Alby punches his sister, he is forced to reconcile his mother’s dying words with his current actions. You can hear the family chemistry spewing from each dialogue. Mistakes are woven into empty promises and then stitched together by inappropriate sibling jargon. Matt Summell quickly takes you through all of the family drama, the way one bad gene can permeate into an entire lifetime, and how family can bring out the best and worst of each other.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

Recommended by Benjamin Moser

Clarice Lispector’s debut collection of stories was also the beginning of her legend. Writes Ben Moser of New Directions, who published the translation of Near to the Wild Heart, Lispector was “a tissue of rumors, mysteries, conjectures, and lies that in the public mind became inseparable from the woman herself.” The title story from the collection invokes the prediction that women will seek out men like their fathers—and equally, how they will search for the exact opposite.

Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster by Lucy Corin

Recommended by McSweeney’s

Patrick suffers his own apocalyptic moment as a white, suburban, fourteen-year-old when the world as he once knew it warps into a steep mountain of change. His normalcy is gone, and all he finds between himself, his father and his mother, is distance and misunderstanding. Simultaneously, California is on fire. While the world around him burns to make space for new fertile ground, Patrick’s life, too, is set on fire, making way for the next moment of tremendous change.

Lebenslugen by Malerie Williams

Recommended by Electric Literature

In a city of 8.6 billion people, three ladies find a home with each other. Nan, a mother and a recluse; Lexi, the daughter; and the downstairs neighbor, Wiener. Together, they build a protective and caring home in “The Babylon” as well as in each other, thus showing that home and family can stretch across unknown and unfamiliar pasts.

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