Great Dysfunctional Families of Fiction

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of "The Nest," on the shifting alliances festering grudges within a family

Family Table

While I was working on my book, The Nest, the question I dreaded most was, “So what is it about?” It’s a logical question, of course, and that it never failed to stump me was embarrassing and, I feared, indicative of some kind of mushiness of intent or clarity or effort. When I would haltingly try to describe it, mumbling something about estranged adult siblings and money, my perplexed listener would almost always say, “Oh, so it’s about a dysfunctional family?”

I guess?

I never loved that descriptor because every family has its share of function and dysfunction; it’s just a question of percentages. A strictly functional family is, let’s be honest, a little boring in literature and life. I adore the adventuresome Ingalls and the can-do March sisters, but if I had to spend time in the company of a family from a book, I’d pick one with a little more spice and verve, a group with shifting alliances and festering grudges and faulty memories and unreliable behaviors. I like a raucous gathering populated by folks who have interesting stories to tell and that one person who just doesn’t know when to keep his or her mouth shut. So here are just a few of my favorites in no particular order.

The Corrections

The Lamberts from The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I know, so predictable, but what can I say? I just really want to hang with Denise, who’s probably been priced out of Brooklyn by now. Probably she’s running an excellent food joint in Minneapolis so she can be closer to Enid. I’d invite Enid over for a girls’ night and maybe slip her a little Mexican A for old time’s sake. Denise would bring a nice wine and we’d get a little silly and complain about the Lambert men folk.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Cookes from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I’m a sucker for a family of academics and this novel features well-meaning academic parents with a tragic lack of boundaries. If you haven’t read it, don’t read anything about it before you do because the way Karen Joy Fowler manages to slowly reveal the plot-point at the heart of this broken family is both miraculous and devastating.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Edelsteins from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Speaking of lack of boundaries, the opening of Aimee Bender’s novel still stays with me, years after first encountering it, when nine-year-old Rose Edelstein bites into a piece of lemon cake her mother made and can taste her mother’s sadness and discontent–and chooses to bear the burden on her own.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The Belseys & The Kipps from On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Not one but two families of academics populate this smart, funny, generous book that is, in part, an homage to Howard’s End. Zadie Smith brilliantly dissects marriage, friendship, family life, politics, identity, personal beliefs and compromises, academia, Rembrandt and, of course, the elusive nature and relative value of beauty.


The Mellows from The Position by Meg Wolitzer

I recommend this book all the time because it’s so much fun. Adulterous parents acting like entitled children; wounded children acting like entitled children; everyone aggrieved at the other’s behavior while obstinately blind to their own flaws. And it’s by Meg Wolitzer so it’s wickedly funny and smart. Did I mention the mysterious sex position? There’s a mysterious sex position.

The Cranes from The Past by Tessa Hadley

Four adult siblings and various family members come together for three weeks one summer to decide whether to keep or sell their family home. Tessa Hadley’s descriptions of the house and the Somerset countryside where it sits are so lovely and evocative that I think I’d recognize the house if I saw it, and I could ring the bell and invite myself in for tea with these complicated, argumentative, siblings who are trying to preserve and escape their past.

The Middlesteins

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Oh, to eat Chinese pork buns with Edie. I grew up in suburban Rochester, New York, which has much more in common with Chicago than New York City, and I relate to every member of this mid-western family and their particular heartaches. I would love to drop into the novel’s brilliant Bar Mitzvah set piece and roam from table to table, listening to the love and angst and history and hope in that room.

Mr. Bridge & Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

She wouldn’t approve of me, but I’d like to spend some time with India Bridge. Maybe she’d let me make her a drink (probably a whiskey sour) and then I’d refill her glass without her noticing. I’d tell her she deserves the things she desires and to stop worrying about her kids so much and read her the first line from Mr. Bridge: “Often, he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her.”

Nomi & Ray from A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is such a powerful writer that just spotting the slim pink spine of this book on my shelf induces a wave of sadness. I love this broken family of Mennonites, including the two characters who have already fled the claustrophobic community in Manitoba and exist primarily in flashbacks that illustrate the gradual breakdown of this family. Sixteen-year-old Nomi is sure she belongs in New York City — or at least away from the place she lives–but for the “complicated kindness” that keeps her and her father rooted to each other’s side until one of them breaks.

Model Home

The Zillers from Model Home by Eric Puchner

Set in a beach town just south of Los Angeles in the mid-80s, Eric Puchner’s family is on the brink of implosion, about to be torn apart by the tried-and-true family destroyers: money and secrets. I especially want to take 16-year-old Lyle (short for Delilah) under my wing, not just to spare her her father’s folly and self-destruction, but because she is so recognizably flawed, so intelligent and witty, such a survivor.

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