Weekly Spotlight On…Dysfunctional Families in Literature

Just in time for the holidays (and the family drama, stress, and inevitable squabbles that tend to come hand in hand with said holidays), I thought it would be fun to put up a list of some of the most dysfunctional families in literature.  “Domestic” literary fiction is one of my favorite categories of literature–for whatever reason, I am inexplicably drawn towards depictions of extreme dysfunction in families, and the more extreme, the better I find the book to be.  Judging from the popularity of some of these books, I don’t seem to be the only one who is drawn to this kind of literature.  Perhaps it is because by reading about nutcase fictional families allows us to compare how relatively normal our own family life is.  Or, on a more positive note, all of these books demonstrate how a family ultimately embraces and loves each member, despite the dysfunctional nature of the family itself.  Here are a few books that have families who give definition to the word “dysfunctional”:

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

In this wonderfully told novel, Attenberg depicts a highly dysfunctional suburban-Chicago Jewish family.  The story itself, while told from multiple points of view of the family members, revolves ultimately around the mother Edie, who by all appearances is literally eating herself to death.  A sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes comical story, the characters in this book, while not all entirely likeable, are successfully sympathetic thanks to Attenberg’s storytelling.  This is a recent book, having come out on October 23rd.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections is, in my opinion, a contemporary American classic.  If you have yet to read Jonathan Franzen, I highly recommend starting with this one.  While the characters you find in this novel are less sympathetic than the ones in The Middlesteins, Franzen combines beautiful post-modernist prose with intense character study and suspense, which urges the reader on to the end.  Here is a blurb of a review of the book from Book List: “Ferociously detailed, gratifyingly mind-expanding, and daringly complex and unhurried…[The Corrections] alignes the spectacular dysfunctions of one Midwest family with the explosive malfunctions of society-at-large”.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Here is a book summary of this fascinating, outrageous, and tragicomic look at a very unique family: “Performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang dedicated themselves to making great art. But when an artists work lies in subverting normality, it can be difficult to raise well-adjusted children.  Just ask Buster and Annie Fang.  For as long as they can remeber, they starred (unwillingly) in their parents’ madcap pieces.  But now that they are grown up, the chaos of their childhood has made it difficult to cope with life outside the fishbowl of their parents’ strange world.”

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Arcadia is a novel that is popping up on a lot of “Best of 2012” book lists, and makes a great read for those who enjoy unique coming-of-age tales.  This particular story follows Bit Stone, the firsth child to be born in the late 1960s on an upstate New York hippie commune called Arcadia, from childhood through the year 2018.  The summary of the book calls it a “lyrical and haunting story of a great American dream–the progress of a utopian community and its lasting impact on a gifted young man.”

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

This one has been on my to-read list ever since it came out back in January of this year, and is again another book cropping up on many “Best of 2012” booklists.  Here is a summary of this darkly comic satire: “Relocating his family to an unremarkable rural town in New York in the hopes of starting over, Solomon Kugel must cope with his depressive mother, a local arsonist, and the discovery of a believed-dead historical specimen hiding in his attice.”

The Red House by Mark Haddon

Here is a book description of Haddon’s third novel (his first was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time):  “Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his estranged sister Angela and her family to join his for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside, which results in a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams, and rising hopes.”  Book List says, “Haddon instantly engages the reader with his comically intimate portrayals of realistic and knowable, though by and large not wholly likable, characters”.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The last book on this list is a slight change of pace–The Leftovers is a strange genre-blending story of an apocalyptic event and a close look at how families deal with this event after it has happened.  In Perrotta’s story, a number of people suddenly vanish into thin air, leaving only a small population of ‘survivors’ behind.  Perrotta chooses to focus on the remaining members of a small town, specifically on the mayor’s family and how each member tries to cope with what happened.

Want more?  Check out this list of lesser known works depicting dysfunctional families brought to you by BookRiot, or this list of the most dysfunctional families in literature brought to you by Publisher’s Weekly!



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