Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Favorite Fiction: Dysfunctional Families

   It can be quite comforting to read about dysfunctional families in literature.  We relate to the characters (some more than others) and they make us feel normal by comparison.  Our voyeuristic side reveals itself when we read about families with problems because, as readers, we are privy to the nature of their dysfunction - we become a sort of literary Peeping Tom.  All creepiness aside, here are a few of Hooked Bookworm's favorite depictions of dysfunctional families in literature:

Bloodroot by Amy Greene

Amy Greene's haunting novel tells the story of Myra Lamb, an enigma of a woman from the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee.  Told mostly from the perspective of friends and family members across several generations, Myra's story is a testament to the poverty, hardship and isolation that rural Appalachian families endured.  Bloodroot is one of the most tragic novels I've ever read, but it is a powerful piece of literature.  I had the opportunity to meet Amy Greene last year and she is reportedly working on a new book to be released this coming fall.  After Bloodroot, I'll read anything Amy Greene publishes!

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Now one of my all time favorite novels, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of Eva Katchadourian's relationship with her family and her struggle with motherhood.  Told through letters to her husband, we learn that Eva's life changed forever the day her son brutally murdered several of his high school classmates and school staff members.  But Eva devastatingly reveals that Kevin's murder spree never came as much of a surprise, because there was always something terrifying, manipulative, and conniving about him - even as a child.  We Need to Talk About Kevin may inspire some very uncomfortable conversations about motherhood, family, and marriage, but the beauty and poignancy of Shriver's prose is more than worth the discomfort of the subject matter.  Read the full review here.

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

It's impossible not to have a dysfunctional family when you're the overwhelmed, depressed husband of 4 wives and somewhere around 30 kids.  Golden Richards and his family are Mormon polygamists, but that isn't really what the book is about.  It's about the way families deal with crises and struggle to communicate with one another in a world that puts so much pressure on individualism and personal identity.  The Lonely Polygamist is long (600+ pages), but well worth the time.  Read the full Hooked Bookworm review here.

Buried Child by Sam Shepard

Buried Child is technically a play, but it still falls into the fiction category and depicts one of the most dysfunctional families you've ever seen.  Violence, addiction, incest, and adultery are peppered throughout the story - oh and there's a dead, unwanted child buried in the back yard that's been looming over the family like a curse for many years.  The family seeks freedom and forgiveness, but what they have to do to obtain this freedom is pretty disturbing.  Buried Child won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

I know most people have seen the movie, but even if you have, please please read the book!  It's one of my favorite books ever and contains some of the most compelling prose you've ever read.  The novel is told from the perspective of a group of teenage boys who lived near the infamous Lisbon sisters and served as "witnesses" to all five of their suicides.  Now seriously, if all five of your kids commit suicide then you might qualify as a dysfunctional family.  The entire community is shaped by the death of the Lisbon sisters, and by the end of the novel, you'll be equally fascinated by the girls.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

No one wants to go anywhere near the Blackwood sisters.  After all, one of them is responsible for poisoning the rest of the Blackwood clan.  The novella is narrated by Merricat Blackwood, who lives on the fringes of society with her sister and their elderly uncle (the only other Blackwoods who survived the poison incident) and through Merricat's ramblings we eventually learn the truth about the family's demise.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is very eccentric, but Shirley Jackson is the queen of gothic literature, so a little quirk and a few spooky surprises are to be expected.  Read Hooked Bookworm's full tribute to Shirley Jackson here.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Ok. So Jonathan Franzen might be an asshole, but The Corrections is nonetheless an amazing novel.  The book tells the story of the Lambert family as they attempt to gather together for the Christmas holiday.  The Corrections primarily chronicles the three Lambert children (now adults) and the defining moments of their youth and adulthood.  The novel demonstrates what we've always known but is still difficult to hear - the happy American family is on the verge of extinction.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Rosa is the epitome of the maternal character who is overbearing, bossy, and obnoxious yet has no idea what a pill she is.  When she becomes a grandmother, she does everything in her power to raise little Aminat as her  daughter, as she thinks her own daughter is unfit for motherhood.  The novel is primarily about Rosa's relationship with Aminat and follows them as Aminat matures and inevitably begins to resent her crazy grandmother.  The book takes place in Soviet Russia and covers several generations of the characters' lives, but their relationships are so dysfunctional you might think you're reading about an American family.  Read the full review here.

I've read more books about dysfunctional families than I can count, but these are just a few of my favorites.  If you want to read more Hooked Bookworm reviews of a similar nature, check under the dysfunctional families label from time to time.  Which titles would you add to the list?