The winter solstice is upon us, and that means: family time. It’s also the perfect time to discover (or rediscover) these classic novels about family, whether you’re retreating with or from your own family. Why not carry one along with you while indulging in the spirit of the season?
They Came Like Swallows (1937) by William Maxwell
William Maxwell, Midwestern master of domestic fiction, paints a quiet portrait of a family at sea in small-town Illinois after World War I. Told in turn by two brothers and their father, the story peels back the layers of their family anguish and reserve during the influenza epidemic of 1918.
The Man Who Loved Children (1940) by Christina Stead
The domineering Sam Pollit looms over his family in a novel that is the epitome of dysfunction. The family suffers mightily, including financial trouble and vicious marital conflict, but the novel, championed famously by Randal Jarrell, among others, is also filled with deep psychological insight and beautiful, lyrical prose.
Mr. Bridge (1959) and Mrs. Bridge (1969) by Evan S. Connell
Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge depict daily life as experienced by a married couple living in a white, upper-middle class neighborhood of Kansas City in the 1930s. Connell allows the narrative to unfold in brief snippets, almost as if the reader is flipping through a series of snapshots, only loosely connected. But from these small details emerge a fullness of character and richness of place that stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album (1975) by Larry Woiwode
You can lose yourself for days in this lyrical and prismatic novel about generations of the Neumiller family of North Dakota, set mostly in the middle decades of the 20th century. A bonus: the cover for the first hardcover edition features a Maurice Sendak illustration.
Offshore (1979) by Penelope Fitzgerald
In this gem, Fitzgerald draws on the years she spent living on a leaky barge in Battersea Reach, on the River Thames. The story follows Nenna James, abandoned by her husband, and her two daughters, as they build a new life for themselves on a houseboat amid an eclectic group of neighbors. Blood may be thicker than water, but the sea is what connects this family of lost souls.
A Summons to Memphis (1986) by Peter Taylor
In this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by one of the masters of the southern short story, a middle-aged book collector in Manhattan is drawn back to Memphis and to the family he has left behind when his sisters implore him to help stop their elderly father from remarrying.
A Thousand Acres (1991) by Jane Smiley
This Pulitzer Prize–winning classic famously reimagines King Lear on an Iowa farm. The genius of Smiley’s telling is in her characterization, and the patient way she allows the family’s drama to unfold. Smiley, no stranger to the epic, recently published Golden Age, the conclusion to a sweeping, century-long trilogy about another Midwestern family.
Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) by Dorothy Allison
This semi-autobiographical novel of a family gone wrong, first published in 1992, established Dorothy Allison as a writer not to be messed with. The pages bristle with sharp, dirty realism and a hard-won love for the Carolinas of Allison’s youth, reflected in the tough life of the book’s young protagonist, Bone Boatwright, who endures sexual abuse, family trauma, and poverty.
The Infinities (2009) by John Banville
Adam Godley is dying, and his family has assembled at his bedside in the Irish countryside to mark his passing. Four guests soon join them—one expected, three uninvited, and two visiting from the Greek pantheon, though only the family dog notices them. Zeus causes problems, Hermes—or perhaps the paralyzed Godley, stowed away in the upper room of the house—narrates, and the family comedy slides into quiet tragedy as Godley realizes the emotional limits of his infinite mind on a single hot, summer’s day.
The Fishermen (2015) by Chigozie Obioma
Muddling the mythic and the mundane, this debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Fishermen follows four brothers from a small town in the author’s native Nigeria. After their father moves for work, leaving them in their gentler mother’s care, the boys spend their days playing truant down by the polluted river that runs through the town—until a madman’s curse rips their family apart.
The Turner House (2015) by Angela Flournoy
A finalist for this year’s National Book Award, The Turner House (another stellar debut) follows several generations of the eponymous family through 20th-century Detroit. Set in a neighborhood that doesn’t exist anymore, on a street haunted by the city’s sorry history, the book is a moving paean to the American family, in all its colors and complications.
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