Now that the first snow has fallen in Chicago, it’s really beginning to feel like the Holidays. And I’m not talking about the slow, leisurely descent into merriment and family cheer I was hoping for. I’m talking about cannonballing into a big pit of frantic cleaning, 5 types of mashed potatoes, and heading to bed at 9:30. Holidays, right?
That’s why we felt that this was the PERFECT time to grab a few of our favorite dysfunctional family sagas. This classic literary trope adds a little perspective to this time of the year, and I mean perspective in the true sense of the word. You’ll certainly feel better about your own family compared to some of the shenanigans within these novels. But more importantly, you’ll be reminded that no matter how late the hour, how dark the tragedy, or how deranged the family member, your little rat’s nest of familial obligation makes life worth living.
And besides, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
So without further ado (and without giving too much away about my own family hangups), here are just a few of our favorite dysfunctional literary families.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen is possibly the archangel of the “dysfunctional family” thing. He nails it in just about every novel, but nowhere more than the Corrections. We join Enid as she is moving into the twilight of her years. Determined to have one final Christmas at home with her husband and three grown children, we meet a host of complicated individuals struggling to come to terms with the darkest aspects of adulthood—mental illness, unemployment, adultery… the usual suspects.
What you’ll take away: Your family is NOT that bad. No, seriously. What’s more, you’ll feel obliged to jump up and help with dishes at Thanksgiving just to prove you’re NOTHING like these characters.
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Another prototypical “dysfunctional” option, with a Jewish Chicago family slant. Edie (sensing a theme?) is the matriarch of her Midwest clan who has developed an obsession with food. After her heft ostensibly breaks up her marriage, Edie’s three children respond to their father’s abandonment in unique ways. Attenberg has clear, at times startling, prose that is such fun to read.
What you’ll take away: Maybe don’t have that last portion of pumpkin pie. Or do! You do you.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
I’ve talked about this book before, but trust me. It deserves a slot on this list. The story of the Kashpaw and the LaMartine families as they deal with each other over three generations. June freezes to death one early Easter morning. Lulu is the mother of eight boys by eight different fathers. Gerry becomes convinced that the deer he hit is actually the spirit of his dead wife. These are dense, palpable familial relationships that will leave you with the haunting perception that you’ve always known these people.
What you’ll take away: Your life is way less magical than you thought (but that’s why the holidays and twinkle lights exist!).
I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
No matter how you feel about Wally Lamb, Oprah’s favorite book is definitely worth a read. The novel begins with a bang; Dominick’s twin brother, Thomas, who has suffered from schizophrenia for most of his adult life, enters a local library and cuts off his hand as a sacrifice to a God his brother has started to lose faith in. This is the gorgeous story about what we do with the siblings we just can’t reach.
What you’ll take away: Hug your brother. Hug your sister. Hug all the family you were born with, as well as the family you’ve created.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
This is a favorite of the staff at RoscoeBooks because it hits all our bullet points. Fast-paced? Check. Hilarious. Check. Dysfunctional family with an emotional payoff? Check check. Tropper is a great writer, but this is my favorite of his novels (along with a certain Hollywood production company, apparently). Judd’s father passes away pretty quickly after he finds his wife sleeping with his coworker (ahem BOSS) in their bed. After an unfortunate incident with some birthday cake, Judd is summoned home to sit Shiva with his three siblings, all at different stages in their life. This is the book I recommend when people need a novel to jump start their reading, but it works just as well to keep your attention when your niece is singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star over and over…and over.
What you’ll take away: Forgiveness is a virtue, and it can be super hilarious.
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
A beautiful novel about 50 years of the typical American Family. Bill is the stoic doctor who fathers four children with his flighty wife, Penny, whose artistic ambitions cause her to flee the conventions of traditional family. After the return of her youngest son stirs up some dark family history, the family must reconvene and deal with their unique experiences of growing up.
What you’ll take away: Your parents did their best. And regardless, thank GOD you’re not at the kids table anymore.
Well, that’s it. So grab a book, put on your happy face, and don your gay apparel. But when the going gets tough, just remember. It’s all worth it for the leftovers.