20 novels featuring family secrets

Opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." In her third novel, 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. I already loved this book, but when we discussed it with author Tayari Jones in the MMD Book Club, my appreciation and enjoyment skyrocketed, as so often happens. I love to peel back all the layers of a good book.
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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.
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The narrator is Blue van Meer, a teenager who 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 senior year of high school, her father declares they will spend the whole year in one place, and Blue falls in with an enigmatic teacher and a hand-picked group of students she's gathered around her. The whole book is strongly reminiscent of The Secret History, yet despite this I still didn't see that big left turn coming. Smart, snappy, and interesting.
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This page-turning family saga has everything you could want in a beach read: 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 a perfect summer selection for fans of messy family stories and compulsively readable literary fiction. I couldn’t put it down. (Content notes include an open door sex scene, substance abuse, and death of a loved one.)
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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, who 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.
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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.
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You may recognize Moore’s name from her newer release Long Bright River. The 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 Ava'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 Ava 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.
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A devoted husband disappears without a trace in this breakneck domestic thriller. 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. This is a new direction for previous SRG author Laura Dave; I think it’s her best work yet.
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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. I didn't know much about Cuba, then or now, before reading this, and really enjoyed the experience.
File this one under "What Should I Read Next made me do it." When I recommended Alyan's debut to an upcoming WSIRN guest, I was reminded that she had a new book out, published in March. This new novel is significantly longer than Salt Houses, clocking in at nearly 500 pages and 20 hours of listening time, but I'm so glad I downloaded the audiobook anyway. 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. If you enjoyed Marjan Kamali's The Stationery Shop, I urge you to consider The Arsonists' City for your TBR. Alyan's story, while a bit edgier (I'm thinking specifically of drug use), has a similar feel. Leila Buck's narration was outstanding.
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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.
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I'm so glad I picked this up on the recommendation of bookseller friends. The premise is this: 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. Two notes: I began this on audio, but quickly switched to print, a change I think was for the best. And while details would spoil the plot, sensitive readers may want to research this book's content warnings before diving in.
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I loved this so much I included it in the 2018 Summer Reading Guide. 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. This seriously twisted and sometimes bloody fairy tale reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale, with a dash of The Matrix.
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. For fans of Shepherd’s The Book of M and Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
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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. The audiobook is narrated by Tom Hanks.
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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.
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This weird and wonderful story focuses on a powerful Southern political family with one tiny problem: when their kids get mad, they spontaneously combust. The husband is angling to become Secretary of State, and may even run for president one day—but if the truth gets out, his career is over. And so the family calls on an unlikely candidate to step in as a nanny-of-sorts: an estranged old friend with a troubled past who has no idea what she’s in for. A surprisingly poignant meditation on friendship and motherhood, hopes and dreams, triumph and defeat, and a story about becoming your own person, and forming your own family—whether that’s the one you’re given, or the one you find. This is a SHORT book, so if you need some momentum in your reading life, this could be the ticket.
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Finally, a follow-up to Bennett’s smashing debut The Mothers—and it’s worth the wait. 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.
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This Gothic mystery is slow to build but those who persevere will be rewarded. The plot flips back and forth between World War II and the 1990s, but not in the way you'd expect. The setting is a crumbling old castle, which contributes to the story's creepy (but not quite scary) feel. Some readers think this is Morton's best work.
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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.
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