Sweeping Family Sagas

Porter is a playwright, hence the extensive cast list on the first page of her debut novel. With a theatrical sensibility and a knack for dialogue, she brings a huge cast of friends and family to life. Follow the lives and loves of an Irish American family and an African American family as their histories intersect in a beautiful exploration of identity and place. Traveling across continents and centuries, these interweaving stories come together as you acclimate to the book's unique structure.
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This slow-burning debut about an Indian-American Muslim family skillfully probes themes of identity, culture, family, and generational change. "I am to see to it that I do not lose you," reads the epigraph (Whitman), and the story wonders if, despite our best intentions, one might nevertheless wound someone they love deeply enough to lose them forever. The story opens with the oldest daughter’s wedding: the bride scans the crowd for her beloved yet rebellious brother, hoping he'll appear despite being estranged from the family for years. Through a series of flashbacks, and in rotating points of view, Mirza examines the series of small betrayals that splintered the family, skillfully imbuing quotidian events—a chance meeting at a party, a dinner conversation about a spelling test—with deep significance, showing how despite their smallness, they irrevocably alter the course of the family’s life. The last section is a stunner, but grab the tissues first. For fans of Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart.
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A compelling premise and graceful telling landed this one on my favorites list. Charles and Lily meet James and Nan in 1963 Greenwich Village when Charles and James are both called to serve Third Presbyterian Church. The two men steward the church through upheaval and change, despite their personal differences. I couldn't stop reading as the couples and their families struggle with faith and friendship.
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An emotionally resonant debut about class, culture, regret, and the road not taken. After twenty years abroad, the Zhens return to their native China to take up residence among Shanghai’s nouveau riche. But deep unease lies behind the façade of their pampered lifestyle, and the reappearance of a long-lost brother stirs up a host of long-buried emotions, and forces the family to revisit complicated (and secret) past choices. The backdrop of contemporary Shanghai and a national festival highlights how the family embodies China's current conflicts and complexities: rich vs poor, urban vs rural, old vs new values. This book deserves more attention than it’s received. For fans of Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us and Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women.
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Robinson’s story of the dying Iowa minister John Ames is one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever read, containing some of the most beautiful sentences ever put to paper. Read it. Read it slow. Wistful, reflective, and wise, this is a book you can read over and over again.
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If you love dysfunctional family novels, this is one doozy of a story—and a must-read. When two rookie cops who meet at the NYC Police Academy strike up a friendship, it sets in motion a tragic chain of events that echo through the decades, through the lives of their children and their children’s children. I found this book exceptionally difficult to read—it’s depressing and dark and triggers abound—yet I was eager to find out what would happen next to these doomed families, and the astonishing developments of the last 75 pages vaulted this to my best-of-the-year list. A poignant story of grace, forgiveness, and redemption, for fans of Atonement and Little Fires Everywhere.
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Pilcher's novels are sometimes categorized as romance, but if you're not a fan of the genre, don't let that scare you off. This family saga tells the story of three generations of a modern British family, brought together again during a time of crisis, all of whom have been burned by love and must figure out how to move forward. Full of interesting, well-developed, flawed-but-likable characters. This is a great beach/travel read, but it's LONG, making it perfect for your ereader library. It's one of the top 100 novels in the BBC's Big Read.
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Celeste Ng calls it "a tender but unflinching portrayal of the bond between two sisters." Responsible and conscientious, Miranda always keeps an eye on her unpredictable younger sister, Lucia. When Lucia starts hearing voices, Miranda takes over, helping Lucia navigate life, treatments, and diagnoses. But Miranda's constant worry and vigilance takes a toll on her, and her relationship with Lucia. Following the sisters over decades and across continents, Lee's compassionate debut novel shines light on how mental illness impacts individuals and their families.
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The follow-up to Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri tells the story of the Ganguli family. Following their arranged marriage, husband and wife travel from Calcutta to Massachusetts and struggle to become Americans. It's complicated enough when it's just the two of them, but when they have a son, the generational clash heightens the burden of assimilation—for all three of them.
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See spins a tale of female friendship spanning eighty years, set against the backdrop of history in an incredible setting—the very real South Korean island of Jeju. On Jeju, women are the breadwinners, making their families’ livings by free-diving into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, harvesting seafood to sell, while the husbands stay home with the children. This tradition has gone on for thousands of years, and we see it lived out in the lives of Young-sook Mi-ja. The two girls become fast friends as seven-year-olds in 1938, but their respective marriages take them down different paths, and bring unforeseen tensions into their relationship. (The real historical events woven into the pages make for heartrending reading.)  A second storyline, set in 2008, gives readers hints of what may have caused the rift between the girls, but it’s only in the final pages that all is revealed. A fascinating, rewarding story of strong women, little-known history, and human resilience.
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I nearly included this in the Summer Reading Guide but decided maybe not too many of you would be interested in a 672 page book published in 1971. But this book is pretty incredible in structure. A sweeping novel, a commentary on marriage–why it works, why it fails. It’s a Pulitzer winner, but its dream sequence ending feels like a copout.
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A much-anticipated debut from former cellist Gabel. It’s the 1990s, and four promising musicians decide to forego the usual soloist path and bind their professional (and personal) lives to form a string quartet. Jana is driven, Henry a prodigy, Daniel a success through dogged determination, and Brit a bit of a wild card. With the feel of a dysfunctional family novel, the characters aren’t always likable but always ring true, and Gabel nails a wide range of human emotions—joy and pain, envy and fear, frustration and near-despair—as she portrays the group’s turbulent eighteen years together. An utterly believable and emotionally compelling submersion into the competitive world of classical music.
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This sweeping Australian saga tops many a reader's favorite books list, and its overall rating on Goodreads is an impressive 4.19. McCullough's modern classic tracks an Australian family across three generations. (It should be noted that for every two people who adore this book there's one who considers it a schmaltzy romance. Read it and decide for yourself.)
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I keep hearing this new debut novel mentioned in the same breath as "best of the year" and now I understand why. For the first hundred pages I didn't quite grasp what the author was up to, but when it hit me it was powerful. By exploring the stories of two sisters, who met different fates in Ghana more than 200 years ago, Gyasi traces subtle lines of cause and effect through the centuries, illuminating how the deeds of ages past still haunt all of us today. A brilliant concept, beautifully executed. Read it.
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Author of four books of poetry, Alyan's debut novel follows three generations of a Palestinian family from the Six-Day War of 1967 to 1990 Kuwait to Beirut, Paris, and Boston. The story opens with Alia's wedding, when Alia's mother, Salma, reads her future in the coffee grounds left in the bottom of her cup and sees both turmoil and travel. While she keeps her premonitions secret, they nevertheless come true as the family is uprooted by war and loss. A lyrical tale of assimilation and the importance of family.
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From the publisher: "One of the most important novels of the twentieth century, The House of the Spirits is an enthralling epic that spans decades and lives, weaving the personal and the political into a universal story of love, magic, and fate."
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Toni Morrison said “the beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being completely devastated by its power." Erdrich’s debut novel reads like a series of connected short stories, drifting back and forth between two intertwined Ojibwe families. Vignettes of drama, healing, justice, and magic reveal the tight bond between the Kashpaws and Lamartines. Told with Erdrich’s signature poetic style, her first work is certainly worth reading.
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I've heard to start this book with no preconceptions because the description doesn't do it justice. Suffice it to say that this novel has been recommended by fellow readers with great taste who describe it using my favorite adjectives: haunting, sweeping, gorgeous.
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In this sweeping domestic drama, Lee tracks four generations of a 20th-century Korean family back to the time when Japan annexed the country in 1910, affecting the fates of all. Lee portrays the struggles of one struggling Korean family against the backdrop of cultural and political unrest, as they endure fierce discrimination at the ends of the Japanese. A compelling portrait of a little-explored period of history.
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Makkai's prize-winning novel asks what it means to be family to one another, as the characters navigate heavy grief and loss within their tight knit communities. In 1985, Yale Tishman loves his job working in the fundraising department of a Chicago art gallery. But as his career takes off, the 1980s AIDS crisis wreaks havoc on his world, devastating his chosen family. Between chapters about Yale's life, we learn his friend Fiona's story, as she travels to Paris 30 years later in search of her estranged daughter. Both timelines kept me glued to the page, and they came together in such a brilliant way at the end of the book. Amy Poehler optioned this one for a "major television event."
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Kim has previously been known for her short stories and won the PEN America Best Debut Short Story honor; her debut novel is set in Korea during the 1950s and ‘60s, where two childhood friends and ill-fated lovers are forced to make terrible choices against the backdrop of the Korean War. The story shifts between multiple points of view, exploring the terrible choice the young woman was forced to make between true love and a secure future, if she can live with herself after that decision, and what will happen next in this love triangle. Jessica Shattuck describes this as “a gripping, heartrending tale of the birth of modern Korea filtered through the prism of an intimate love story.”
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Southern Baptist Missionary Nathan Price heads off to the African Congo with his wife and 4 daughters in 1959, and nothing goes as planned. Though they bring with them everything they think they will need from their home in Bethlehem, Georgia--right down to the Betty Crocker cake mixes--the Prices are woefully unprepared for their new life among the Congolese, and they all pay the price.
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