Families are complicated. This isn’t just a plainly true statement—it’s also my favorite literary sub-genre. For the last few years, I’ve even included a “families are complicated” category in my Summer Reading Guide because I can’t get enough of these absorbing relationship-driven novels.
I especially love books that follow families over multiple generations or across vast landscapes, revealing how time and place impact their relationships. Setting, plot, and character come together so beautifully in these sweeping family sagas.
With the holidays quickly approaching, now is the perfect time to pick up an engrossing story about complicated families. Getting lost in a book after a boisterous family gathering is my definition of introvert self-care, and it’s nice to be reminded (via fiction) that all families, no matter how loving, are complicated.
Ready your coziest reading spot, and warn your loved ones that you’ll be occupied for awhile.
What are you reading over the holiday season? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. And of course, please share all of your “families are complicated” book recommendations.
This engrossing story combines medicine, family, and politics to great effect. Moving between India, Ethiopia, and New York City, we follow the story of identical twin brothers, born of a secret union between an Indian nun and the British surgeon she assisted. Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, part sweeping family story, this novel defies easy genre categorizations and ranks as the favorite book EVER of legions of readers. There are some difficult scenes, and it starts slowly—but it is 100% worth every page. More info →
If you're new to this novel, brace yourself: Francie Nolan is about to win you over. Her Irish Catholic family is struggling to stay afloat in the Brooklyn slums, in the midst of great change at the turn of the century, while her charismatic but doomed father is literally drinking himself to death. But Francie is young, sensitive, imaginative, and determined to make a life for herself. A moving story of unlikely beauty and resilience, wistful, satisfying, and heart-wrenching. More info →
I've talked about Hannah Coulter several times: the books I can't stop recommending, a book I've read more than once, what to read when you feel like the world is falling apart. Hannah's second husband Nathan Coulter (her first died in the war) was reticent to talk about his experience in the Battle of Okinawa. "Ignorant boys, killing each other," is all he would say. In this atmospheric novel, an older Hannah looks back on her life and reflects on what she has lost, and those she has loved. Her recollections paint a vivid portrait of a complicated, loving family. I adore Berry, who writes gorgeous, thoughtful, piercing novels, and this is one of his finest. Contemplative, wistful, and moving. More info →
Spanning across centuries from the Civil War to modern day, 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 stunning sentences ever put to paper. Written as a letter to his son, Ames’ story about fatherhood, spirituality, and history resonates. Read it. Read it slow. Wistful, reflective, and wise, this is a book you can read over and over again. More info →
I love this one so much, I included it in Volume II of my short-form podcast One Great Book. 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 holiday 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. More info →
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. More info →
This enthralling story spanning four generations is based on real events, and offers a fascinating look at both one family's history and the history of the American West. The narrator is Lyman Ward, an injured, wheelchair-bound man who fills his days by working on a history of his grandparents, and much of this "history" is the novel the reader holds. This interesting structure invites the reader to come alongside the narrator as he tries to puzzle out what really happened between his grandparents many years before, and as he reflects on what makes a friendship or a marriage work—and what may cause it to fail. More info →
McCullough's modern classic tracks an Australian family across three generations. This sweeping Australian saga tops many a reader's favorite books list for its captivating romance, dramatic turns, and vivid setting. (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.) More info →
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. Her debut follows the generations of one family over a period of 250 years, showing the devastating effects of racism from multiple perspectives, in multiple settings. For the first hundred pages I didn't quite grasp what the author was up to, but when it hit me it was powerful. A brilliant concept, beautifully executed, and I CAN’T WAIT for her new novel set for a 2020 summer release. More info →
Gorgeous writing, magical realism, forbidden love, and political drama. This Latin-American classic has it all. Fall in love with the Trueba family, from the passionate patriarch Esteban, to the revolutionary granddaughter Alba. History impacts each family member as they navigate tragedy and hope. Powerful female characters shine in this absorbing multigenerational saga. More info →
"We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly." An unputdownable novel tracing 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 family's struggles against the backdrop of cultural and political unrest, as they endure fierce discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. Operatic and sprawling, every decision has a reverberating consequence in this compelling portrait of a little-explored period of history. More info →
Kim's 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." More info →
I adored Mirza's slow-burning debut about an Indian-American Muslim family, which 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. More info →
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: husband Wei finds no satisfaction at work, wife Lina spends her days shopping and lunching, and both miss their daughter, who attends school in America. When Wei's long-lost brother reappears, he stirs up a host of long-buried emotions, forcing Lina to revisit past choices she hid from her husband. 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. A compelling story of class, culture, regret, and anxiety about the road not taken. More info →
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. More info →
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. More info →
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. More info →
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. More info →
Nobody can do a richly layered family saga unfolding over decades like Ann Patchett. 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, and the family falls apart over the purchase. In alternating timelines, we get the whole story, over five decades, from Cyril's son Danny. He and his older sister Maeve face poverty and loss, and shelter one another from loneliness and abandonment. The siblings face a test when confronted with the past. Note: the audiobook is narrated by Tom Hanks. More info →
Alyn'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 and sees both turmoil and travel. While she keeps her premonitions secret, they all come true as the family is uprooted by war and loss. A lyrical tale of assimilation and the importance of family. More info →
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. More info →
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. Readers say both timelines keep you glued to the page, and they come together in a brilliant way at the end of the book. More info →
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. More info →
This one's currently on my nightstand. 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, I'm told these interweaving stories come together as you acclimate to the book's unique structure. More info →
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. More info →
What are you planning on reading in the season to come? What books would you add to this list?