‘Tis the season for family gatherings! The time of year when relatives reconnect, have political arguments, and maybe, after a little too much eggnog, tell Aunt Cathy what they really think about her new perm. What better way to prep for the holidays than to read up on a few dysfunctional families (some of which should — hopefully — have yours beat!)? These books will make you glad that your cousin’s goth boyfriend is your only source of drama this year. Below, some suggestions in order from least to most disturbing. (The first one, “Ru,” is actually about a loving family that falls on hard times; the rest are pretty much about the horrible things relatives can do to one another.)
Structured as a series of vignettes, reading “Ru” almost feels like viewing a series of related paintings out of order. Each vignette is beautiful, written almost as poetry, and the correlations become clearer as the book progresses. Loosely based on Thúy’s own life, the novel describes her story in three separate stages: as the daughter of a wealthy family in Saigon; as a refugee in Malaysia after the family flees the Vietnam War; as a Canadian émigré, so far from her upper-class beginnings and struggling to make ends meet in a foreign country. Let’s face it, someone at Thanksgiving will likely start talking about refugees, so it might be nice to steer the conversation toward this short read (2-3 hours max). Thúy finds beauty and kindness in the hardships she endured, and that attitude is definitely one worth being thankful for.
This novel follows Drew Silver, a pretty cool dude. Sure, he’s a washed-up drummer whose band had one hit decades ago, and his ex-wife is about to remarry. Oh, and his daughter is about to start college and just shared that she’s pregnant (she doesn’t confide in him because she respects his opinion or needs his help; rather, she cares so little what he thinks of her and she has to tell someone). OK, Silver is starting to suspect that his life maybe didn’t turn out like he’d hoped. When he’s told he needs heart surgery to live, Silver realizes that maybe his life isn’t worth saving. He refuses the surgery and decides to spend the short time he has left fixing his broken relationships, especially with his daughter. The story sounds pretty cliché, but Tropper is well-known for his ability to breathe depth, warmth, and humor into dark and depressing plot setups, much like Nick Hornby.
Murray Thwaite is a famous New York City journalist — as in, Park Avenue-apartment famous. His daughter, Marina, is a socialite and former model with a book deal. And her friends from Brown, Danielle and Julius, are doing their best to survive in a city that only cares about people like Marina. There is little depth of character here, and that is most assuredly by design: These people are shallow, self-absorbed, and unable to reflect on their own motivations [spoiler: dysfunction hits an all-time high when your dad starts sleeping with your best friend]. Then Marina’s cousin Bootie arrives, and the carefully crafted images that both Murray and Marina hide behind start to unravel. Many critics complain that Messud uses 9/11 as a lazy deus ex machina for all of her characters to suddenly solve their problems and become better people. But, since she clearly planned the plot around this fateful day, can it really be dismissed as a twist designed to get her characters out of a corner she accidentally wrote them into? Her prose runs long, but when these a-holes start really screwing each other over, you won’t be able to put the book down.
Speaking of self-absorbed people, Jonathan Franzen is keenly adept at writing about people who are kind of jerks and kind of do jerky things. “Freedom” is no exception, and one of the annoying things about Franzen being kind of full of himself is that, well, he is a really good writer. Even as you watch the Berglund family — Walter, an environmental lawyer who inexplicably took a job supporting the coal industry; Patty, the once-envied housewife who has become bitter and depressed about her perceived “uselessness;” and Joey, the son who can’t handle being the sole focus of his mother’s attention and love — lie and cheat, once Franzen fills in the context and history, you start to understand, and maybe even sympathize a little. Every family evolves over the years into something it never expected or intended. At the end of “Freedom,” you will feel love for where this family ends up, even though they don’t really end up together.
Recently made into a film starring Steve Carrell, “Beautiful Boy” is the true story of Sheff’s experience being the father of a drug addict. A successful journalist and author, Sheff raised his family in an extremely privileged community in the Bay Area, and his oldest son, Nic, attended an elite private high school. But addiction doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, and while Sheff has the resources to throw money at the problem, he still must watch, helpless, as Nic lies, steals, overdoses, and relapses over and over again. The really engrossing part of this memoir is Sheff’s frank discussion of his own feelings of guilt and constant wondering if there was something he could have done differently. Having to watch your child constantly self-destruct, knowing there’s nothing you can do, and questioning where you could have prevented it, is one of the greatest pains a parent can face. Sheff is refreshingly open about this conflict within himself. A particularly helpful book if you are dealing with a relative in the throes of addiction.
In small-town Ohio, in the 1970s, Marilyn and James Lee are a mixed-race couple (she is American, and he is Chinese) — which, well, it kind of goes without saying that this is unusual for the time and place. Their middle, and favorite, daughter is Lydia, who mysteriously drowns. With this death as the beginning of her story, Ng juxtaposes the aftermath, as a family slowly unravels from grief, with the events that lead to Lydia’s demise. Although I found the “reveal” a little disappointing, Ng’s incredible writing and her ability to inhabit these heartbroken people make “Everything I Never Told You” worth a read. James wants so badly to assimilate and be seen as American; Marilyn, an ambitious woman turned frustrated housewife, wants nothing but to stand out. Their tug-of-war over Lydia only makes her retreat further from both of them, and the events of her life become the titular everything she could never tell them about.
Scott has just moved to the Hamptons so that his wife, Elise, can attend to her dying father. It is the dead of winter, so most of the homes in the area are empty for the season, and there is very little to do. As such, Scott gets a little too interested in the house next door, whose lights click off precisely at 11 o’clock every night. His daydreams about the house eventually overcome his ability to make good decisions, and he persuades Elise to “sneak in” one night and check the place out. Obviously, this is a huge mistake, and less obviously, it leads to twisted revelations about Elise’s messed-up family. “The Winter Girl” is an engrossing page turner, but not one that requires a whole lot of focus and attention, which makes it a perfect plane read this holiday season.
Think your parents are messed up? They have nothing on Al and Crystal Lil Binewski. When their traveling carnival starts to fail, they decide to breed their own freak show by experimenting with drugs and other chemicals during Lil’s pregnancies. The deformed brood that results includes a boy with flippers instead of hands and feet, Siamese twins, an albino hunchback, and a physically “normal” kid who has telekinetic powers. While the novel is full of horrible, shocking things — what the parents have done to their children; what the children in turn do to each other; and what they do to the “Norms” who feel both reverence and disgust for these “freaks” — Dunn also infuses her prose with a tenderness toward people who are different. It’s no wonder this became a cult classic with fans like Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love (the book will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year). And by the way, Dunn says the idea for the book came to her one day when she was daydreaming being able to genetically modify her young son to be more obedient. What parent doesn’t sympathize with that?
This book is more famous for the movie adaptation, “Precious,” which launched Gabourey Sidibe’s career and earned Mo’Nique an Oscar. Though an incredibly graphic and disturbing account of Precious’s abuse at the hands of both of her parents, the story is actually optimistic. Precious is a practically illiterate teenager, pregnant for the second time by her biological father, and constantly failed by her school and the social services that are supposed to protect her — but Precious doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her. She fights to transcend her horrific circumstances, which is heartbreaking in its own way: she knows that if she could just learn to read, she can become empowered to escape her terrible circumstances. As you cheer for this girl, you are also reminded of the myriad things you take for granted in your daily life, like the simple act of reading this article.
Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.