20 notable novels featuring family secrets

Stories built around family secrets make irresistible reads.

It’s no secret I love fiction about complicated families. When I stopped to think about my favorites, I realized how many of those complications are due to family secrets and the way what’s said—or left unsaid—causes friction. Sometimes the skeletons are literal; sometimes they’re metaphorical.

That makes for compelling reading. Such stories ignite my natural curiosity about what’s at the center of these families and I love to read on and see how the secrets will unfurl. These stories also get me thinking about how I would react if it was happening to me … and about the once-hidden secrets from my own family that have come to light over the years.

Stories built on secrets can serve as a meditation on the way people contain multitudes. Some characters resonate, while others make me despair over their choices—but either way, I’m going to keep turning the pages until I see how it’s all resolved.

Every family has its own issues, it’s true, but I hope you’ve never encountered a family secret like the ones in the pages of today’s books. We’ve got a mix of contemporary fiction, literary fiction, mystery, thrillers, and even YA. One of the books is this month’s selection in Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club. Peng Shepherd joins us on August 25 as we delve into The Cartographers so be sure to mark your calendar.

I would love to hear about your experience with secret-driven family stories, plus your recs along these lines, in the comments section.

20 notable novels featuring family secrets

Some links (including all Amazon links) are affiliate links. More details here.

The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours

Author:
This Gothic mystery is slow to build but those who persevere will be rewarded. The setting is a crumbling old castle, which contributes to the story's creepy (but not quite scary) feel. The plot flips back and forth between World War II and the 1990s, but not in the way you'd expect. Book editor Edie is drawn into a mystery surrounding her favorite novel, introducing her to the Sisters Blythe who inherited Milderhurst Castle in Kent. Their father wrote the famous children’s storybook The True History of the Mud Man seventy years prior. That story was pure fiction, the girls were told. But was it really? More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow

Author:
Opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." In this backlist novel set in the 1980s, Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father's second marriage starts to force its way into the open. Rather than writing back-and-forth between two perspectives, the reader encounters almost all of one sister's point of view in the first half, followed by the other's. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age narrative wrapped in a complicated family novel. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Author:
I enjoyed this book so much I read it twice—and you sure can't beat the title. Teenager Blue van Meer has been moving from town to town with her father ever since her mother died, accompanying him to each of his short-term professorial stints at tiny liberal arts colleges across the country. Her father declares they will spend her whole senior year of high school in one place, and Blue falls in with an enigmatic teacher and a hand-picked group of students she's gathered around her. It’s strongly reminiscent of The Secret History, but I still didn't see that big left turn coming. Smart, snappy, and interesting. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Barnes and Noble
Buy from Bookshop
These Ghosts Are Family

These Ghosts Are Family

Author:
Stanford Solomon isn’t who he says he is. He faked his death and stole his best friend’s identity thirty years ago. When Irene shows up for work as a home health aide, she has no idea Stanford is actually her father. Going back to colonial Jamaica to present day Harlem, Card explores the ripple effect of Stanford’s decision on not only his family but how it happened in the first place. A must-read for anyone who wants to get lost in a family saga. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

This is the story of a family in middle America, two parents and three kids, completely normal—with one major exception. Daughter Rosemary is our narrator and insists on page 1 that she needs to skip the beginning of this story and start in the middle instead. We soon learn that when Rosemary's sister left, everyone else fell apart, and they're still picking up the pieces. Don't read the description, just start reading. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Bookshop
The Unseen World

The Unseen World

Author:
This story follows a young girl whose world collapses when her single father’s undisclosed Alzheimer’s begins disrupting the happy pair's peaceful existence. David is a brilliant scientist, but as he comes to terms with his encroaching illness, he begins to plan for Ada's future without him. But he runs out of time, and never gets to tell his daughter the truth about his own identity—and why he isn't the person he'd always claimed to be. Years later, a visit from a long-lost friend prompts Ada to investigate her father's history, relying on everything he'd taught her about computers and coding to decrypt the clues he left for her years ago. Wonderful on audio, as narrated by Lisa Flanagan. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
Next Year in Havana

Next Year in Havana

Author:
After her beloved grandmother dies, a Cuban-American woman travels from Miami back to Havana and unearths a treasure trove of family secrets. If you love stories that go back and forth in time, this is for you. In 1958, 19-year-old Elisa falls in love for the first time—with a dangerous revolutionary. In 2017, Elisa's granddaughter Marisol travels to newly-open Cuba, ostensibly to write an article on tourism, but really to learn more about her grandmother and the complicated country she loved. Before reading this I didn't know much about Cuba, then or now, and really enjoyed the experience. More info →
Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Author:
Ng's second novel opens with a house on fire, literally. It belongs to a suburban family, and it wasn't an accident: as one character reports, “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere." But who did it, and why? That's the setup for this literary thriller, which explores what happens when an itinerant artist and her daughter move into a seemingly perfect Ohio community, and thoroughly disrupt the lives of its residents. Using a skillful (and hard to pull off) double narrative, Ng reveals the recent events that spurred the fire and the decades-old buried backstory that set up the disaster. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood

Author:
This dark fairytale takes place in modern day Manhattan, and portrays a daughter coming to grips with a dizzying family history that's been carefully kept from her. Alice and her mom have spent 17 years on the run, trying to dodge the persistent bad luck mysteriously connected to an unnerving book of stories penned by Alice's estranged grandmother. When Alice's grandmother dies, her mother thinks they're free—until the day Alice comes home from school to discover Ella has been kidnapped, leaving behind a page torn from her grandmother's book and a note: Stay away from the Hazel Wood. But Alice has to save her mom, so she enters what she slowly begins to see is her grandmother's book of stories-come-to-life—and they suddenly look a lot more like horror than fantasy. More info →
The Dutch House: A Novel

The Dutch House: A Novel

Author:
I love sibling stories and meaty family sagas, as well as stories told with a reflective, wistful tone. This one delivers on all counts. Cyril Conroy means to surprise his wife with the Dutch House, a grand old mansion outside of Philadelphia. But a symbol of wealth and success for some is a symbol of greed and excess to others—including, crucially, Cyril's wife—and the family falls apart over the purchase. In alternating timelines, we get the whole story, over five decades, from Cyril's son Danny. Audiophile alert: the audiobook is narrated by Tom Hanks. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Bookshop
Nothing to See Here

Nothing to See Here

Author:
This quick and wholly original read about two kids who spontaneously combust when angry will make you laugh and then get you right in the feels. The story centers on an important political family that has a tiny little problem—their kids catch fire when they get mad—and if the secret gets out, their political aspirations are over. Wilson perfectly blends realistic emotional drama with just the right amount of weirdness, which lets the author address serious things—life, work, power, ambition, relationships—without getting precious about it. Marin Ireland's narration hits just the right notes with her narration. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Bookshop
The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half

Author:
Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in a town so small it doesn't appear on maps. They're closer than close, so Desiree is shocked when Stella vanishes one night after deciding to sacrifice her past—and her relationship with her family—in order to marry a white man, who doesn't know she's black. Desiree never expects to see her sister again. The twins grow up, make lives for themselves, and raise daughters—and it's those daughters who bring the sisters together again. It's a reunion Stella both longs for and fears, because she can't reveal the truth without admitting her whole life is a lie. Bennett expertly weaves themes of family, race, identity, and belonging into one juicy, unputdownable novel spanning five turbulent decades. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Bookshop
My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer

Ayoola has an unfortunate habit of murdering her boyfriends. Korede has an unfortunate habit of cleaning up her sister’s messes. Literally. When Ayoola calls, Korede comes equipped with bleach and rubber gloves. She loves her sister, after all. But things change when Ayoola starts dating Korede’s long-time crush. A quick, darkly comic read. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
The Lost Vintage

The Lost Vintage

Author:
Kate heads to her family’s vineyard estate in Burgundy, in need of a retreat while she studies for the Master of Wine Examination. She can’t afford to fail again and she hopes this will allow her to reconnect with family while learning about Burgundian vintages. As she helps her cousins clear out the basement, she stumbles across a diary and a treasure trove of wine. Her great-aunt was a teen during WWII but it’s not clear whether her family sided with the Resistance or the Nazis, nor can she figure out what happened to several bottles of wine missing from the cellar’s collection. Mah draws readers in with diary entries and a dual timeline, as Kate unearths the secrets her family hid for decades. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Bookshop
Malibu Rising

Malibu Rising

This page-turning family saga features surfers, rockstars, 80s pop culture, and a mansion going up in flames. It’s 1983, and the four adult children of rockstar Mick Riva are preparing to host Malibu’s party of the year, unaware of how this one night will irrevocably change their lives. Reid employs an interesting structure to unpack what happens, hour by hour, the day of the party, intercutting the present-day narrative with scenes from the family’s past that go back generations. With well-drawn characters and a strong sense of time and place (I hung on every reference to Tab, big hair, and belted t-shirts), it’s perfect for fans of messy family stories and compulsively readable literary fiction. I couldn’t put it down. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Bookshop
The Rose Code

The Rose Code

Author:
Set in WWII Britain, England's pressing needs unite three unlikely women in a common cause: breaking codes at Bletchley Park. Well-to-do Osla is a society girl, often accused of having more beauty than brains. Determined Mab grew up poor in London's east end, and seeks a better life for herself and her young sister. And miserable Beth, doormat daughter to the overbearing mother who billets Bletchley Park girls to help the war effort. This book grabbed me from the opening pages, but I'll admit I began turning them faster when we veered into spy thriller territory. Solidly entertaining—I especially enjoyed the story on audio, as narrated by Saskia Maarleveld. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
The Last Thing He Told Me

The Last Thing He Told Me

Author:
I inhaled this breakneck domestic thriller in a single evening. Hannah and Owen have been happily married for a year. She finds meaning in her job crafting bespoke furniture for high-end clients; he works at a tech start-up that builds privacy software. The only real sore spot between them is her fragile relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter Bailey. Then one afternoon, Hannah receives a hastily scrawled note from her husband with just two words on it: “protect her.” Why must she protect Bailey—and from whom? She can’t ask Owen; he’s gone—and Hannah is determined to find out why. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
The Arsonists’ City

The Arsonists’ City

Author:
I was quickly swept up in the story of the complicated Nasr family, with its Syrian mother, Lebanese father, and three adult children flung across the globe. When the patriarch of the family dies, his widow and their three adult children gather in Beirut to sell the ancestral home. What nobody knows is that every family member is hiding an explosive secret from the rest of the family, and perhaps none is more potentially damaging than the one the mother has been holding onto for nearly four decades—one that she knows would devastate her children. In vivid flashbacks, set first during the Lebanese Civil War and later in California after the parents' emigration, Alyan unspools the riveting backstory. (This is our Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club October 2022 selection.) More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Libro.fm
Buy from Bookshop
The Love of My Life

The Love of My Life

Author:
Emma and Leo have been happily married for ten years when Leo, an obituary writer, takes on an assignment at work. As an esteemed obituary writer, one of his jobs is to draft advance obituaries for well-known individuals so they're ready, should they be needed. As a noted marine biologist, Emma ranks an advance obit—but when Leo begins researching his wife's life, he quickly discovers the truth doesn't match the story she's told him. He doesn't even know her real name, and she's never breathed a word to him about the first love of her life. The multiple points of view Walsh employed served the story perfectly; I raced through this book to learn the truth alongside Leo. More info →
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop
The Cartographers

The Cartographers

Author:
Our Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club August 2022 selection is a page-turning literary mystery with a dynamite premise and a little bit of magic. Seven years ago, cartographer Nell Young lost everything—her career, her reputation, her fiancé, and her family—because of an argument over a cheap gas station map. After her esteemed cartographer father unexpectedly dies, Nell learns he’d been working on some sort of secret project connected to the map, which isn’t junk at all but an incredibly rare and hotly sought-after artifact—and her knowledge of its existence may put her very life in danger. A sophisticated scavenger hunt ensues, leading Nell to a secretive and powerful band of mapmakers called The Cartographers, and to closely guarded secrets held by her own family. A gripping and inventive story of family secrets, found family, second chances, and cartography, set against the backdrop of the storied New York Public Library. More info →
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Amazon Kindle
Buy from Audible.com
Buy from Bookshop

What are your favorite novels about family secrets? Please tell us all about them in the comments section!

P.S. 25 family sagas that will sweep you away and 14 books about endearingly quirky families.

20 notable novels featuring family secrets

52 comments

Leave A Comment
  1. Haley Wofford says:

    I stumbled upon The Two-Family House by Linda Cohen Loigman years ago and devoured it. The characters and family dynamic are handled brilliantly and I was shocked by the plot twist at the end. It’s definitely worth a read (or reread).

  2. Lisa says:

    An oldie but goodie, my favorite book about family secrets is The Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch. It’s a long one, but rich, and explores the generational effects and trauma of family secrets.

  3. Heather says:

    I enjoyed so many of the books on this list, so I guess I love a good family secret novel myself. I am currently reading The Shell Seekers and it came to mind when you mentioned family secrets. I’m enjoying this family saga so much this summer. Listening as I knit and then reading the hard copy at night before bed. This book will be high on my list of all time favorites.

  4. Rebekah Jacobs says:

    My favorite genre! Mine are all nonfiction- wild stories, all filled with big secrets, but they are all true. The truth can be even stranger than fiction. Maybe there’s no “normal” family after all 🙂
    -Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met 35 Siblings by Chrysta Bilton
    -Inheritance by Dani Shaprio
    -Wild Game: My Mother, Her Secret, and Me by Adrienne Broedeur
    -Never Simple: A Memoir by Liz Scheier
    -The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing by Adam P. Frankel
    -When Time Stopped: Memoir of My Father and What Remains by Arianna Neumann
    -Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

  5. Deepa says:

    Tuck Everlasting! What a family secret. An absolute classic of a book with a killer first line: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” I think of it most years as the calendar flips to August.

    My daughter and I read it together when she was 9 or 10 and had a lot of discussions about the central theme – is immortality really that enticing of an idea?

  6. Melinda Malaspino says:

    I feel compelled to add Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series to this list. The multi-generational, four book saga of the Owen’s family is filled with secrets, magic, historical context, and complicated relationships.
    Also, I’m VERY excited to read The Cartographers!

  7. Susan Peck says:

    Thanks so much for this list. I love a juicy family saga and have read nine of the books on your list. I will be adding the rest to my TBR!!

  8. Suzy says:

    It’s funny, just yesterday as I read yet ANOTHER synopsis promising “buried family secrets”, I thought, in real life how many buried family secrets ARE there?? But then I remembered that my grandmother had a Big Secret she never disclosed in her lifetime (my mother found it out after her death) and I, in fact, have a secret only a few people know about. (But if it came out, I wouldn’t look bad, it would be the Other Person who would be in trouble.) So maybe secrets are more common than I thought!! And I love this list, those are a LOT of good books!!

  9. Angie Krueger says:

    I’ve read so many of these and cements my perspective that I love a complicated family saga. Can’t wait to read the rest because I know I will love them!

  10. Ellen Heath says:

    I’m always surprised not to see Cloudstreet by Tim Winton on lists of family novels. I have read that it is considered to be an Australian classic. It’s the story of two families living in the same house (not happily, especially at first) in Perth in the mid-20th century. I don’t remember any specific secrets per se, but I’m sure there were some, and I do remember I really enjoyed the book quite a bit. Great sense of place.

  11. Nicola Jesse says:

    The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner. Secrets! Of one man that involved several woman’s lives & includes the San Francisco earthquake as a backdrop..

  12. Jeannie says:

    Great list of books- I own and/or have read many, and want to read all of the others.
    Thanks for including Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I’ve recommended this book to many people over the years, and can’t find anyone else who read it!!! They sure are missing a good story in a well written book.

  13. Betsy says:

    Loved all these titles; some I’ve read snd others I’ve added to my TBR..
    One of my favorite family drama books is Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Noticed you had Dutch House on your list. AP can really write a good family book!

  14. Nicole says:

    I am currently midway through Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake, and while I don’t yet know all the secrets, there sure are some alluded to right from the start! It’s very engaging and the desire to know all the things has kept me readily turning pages!

  15. Whitney says:

    SO many good options here! I would add “The Stars We Share” by Rafe Posey, where there is a secret in a marriage that you know absolutely has to remain a secret, but seeing how that secret lives in the marriage is done so very well.

  16. Ann says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’m surprised to find I’ve read many of them; good to know there’s more in reserve. I’m working on genealogy lately. I’m finding many things to question but no scandalous secrets so far. 🤣

  17. Susan says:

    Just added The Distant Hours to my TBR.
    Kate Morton is my favorite author for novels based on family secrets that go on for years. I listened to the audio version of a 2013 novel she wrote, The Secret Keeper, and although many may have seen the reveal of the “secret” coming, I did not. I was blown away by the ending. Really good.
    I highly recommend the audio version of The Clockmaker’s Daughter narrated by Joanne Frogatt of Downton Abbey fame.
    Also, so glad to see The Arsonists’ City on this list. I listened to this one and its my favorite book of the year so far.

  18. Sara says:

    I just finished The Cartographers – it was on my list via the Minimalist Summer Reading List – and I absolutely hated it. The plot was interesting and kept me curious through the first half, but was unsatisfying and full of holes in the second half. The worst part was the chapters written in first person from the point of view of secondary characters. They all had the same voice! I kept forgetting who was telling that part of the story because they all sounded exactly the same.

    Anyway. I want to put a few of these other books on my list, but I’m feeling a little let down after that stinker of a book. Anyone else hate The Cartographers but have a good recommendation?

    • Karen says:

      I was also disappointed in the cartographers. I had been excited to read it and then found a poorly written mess of a book. Intriguing idea gone bad. I just finished Fellowship Point and found it much more satisfying.

  19. Carole says:

    Thank you for saying you hated the Cartographers. I thought I was alone in feeling let down by this book. It was a map to nowhere!

  20. Elizabeth says:

    I just finished a brand new book called Hello, Goodbye by Kate Stollenwerck. Full of family secrets, and I could not guess what was going to happen – which I love! Highly recommend – also could be considered YA.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.