The 24 Most Dysfunctional Families In Literature

Ever feel like your family has more drama than anyone else you know? These essential books will both entertain you and make you feel better about your own home life.

1. The Karenins and the Levins

Anna Karenina is the ultimate family drama, complete with its famous opening line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

2. The Deckers

Donna Tartt’s new novel is being called “Dickensian” and “Harry Potteresque” which is shorthand for saying that its hero has more than a few problems at home.

3. The Mitras

Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2013 National Book Award fiction finalist charts the disintegration of a formerly happy Indian family pulled apart by politics, violence, and unflagging idealism.

4. The Lamberts

Love him or think he’s a pompous ass, one thing is for sure: Jonathan Franzen artfully captures the travails of a Midwestern clan.

5. The Binewskis

If you’ve ever felt like your sibling is a freak, look no further. Geek Love follows a carny family, all of whom have special “talents”, as they travel from circus to circus.

6. The Melroses

Edward St. Aubyn’s exquisite collection of four connected novellas proves that British aristocrats might just be the most depraved of all of us.

7. The Plaskett-Khatchadourians

How could a mother possibly not love her son? Lionel Shriver’s creepy heartbreaker of a novel explains how and why, to devastating effect.

8. The Belseys and the Kipps

Race, class, religion, academia and art are just some of the weighty topics that Zadie Smith explores in her second novel, in which the lives of two families intersect in surprising ways.

9. The Middlesteins

Jami Attenberg’s great gift is that she lovingly humanizes her titular characters—members of a Jewish American family in crisis—even as she shows the worst in them.

10. The Gladneys

The extended Gladney family (Dad was married five times) contains multitudes: drug addiction, unbridled consumerism, obsession with violence, and a big dose of good old-fashioned death anxiety.

11. The Blackwoods

After more than half their family is murdered (always beware of arsenic in the sugar bowl!), the Blackwood girls and their ailing uncle are kept isolated and alone. Like Grey Gardens, but with more killing!

12. The Fangs

Nothing can be “normal” about a family comprised of two performance artists and their children. Kevin Wilson’s novel is poignant even as it makes you laugh at the absurdities of the Fang clan’s purposefully dramatic life.

13. The Dollys

Before Walter White came along, there was another meth-cooking father who caused familial chaos. Set in an impoverished corner of the Ozarks, Winter’s Bone is the story of one young girl struggling to survive despite her father’s neglect.

14. The Lisbons

Jeffrey Eugenides’s first novel—AKA that Sofia Coppola movie with Kirsten Dunst—takes suburban adolescent ennui to new extremes. The story of the beautiful, tragic Lisbon girls will haunt you long after you read the final page.

15. The Bigtrees

If you think your childhood was rough, consider Ava Bigtree. Her mom (an alligator wrestler) is dead, her dad is trying to keep the family business afloat, her brother has abandoned them for the city, and her sister has married a ghost. Equal parts bitter reality and fantasy.

16. The Unnamed Family in We the Animals

We don’t know the last name of the family in Justin Torres’s haunting debut, but we do know that the family loves and hates with a similar passion. A short, quick read that’s packed with emotion.

17. The Edelsteins

What happens when a girl can actually taste emotions in her mother’s cooking? And what if the birthday cake her mother baked for her tastes unmistakably like despair? Just as in her amazing short stories, Aimee Bender uses fantastical elements in her novel to convey the depths of ordinary unhappiness.

18. The VanMeters

WASP wedding goes horribly awry! Watch as the troubled (in a fun way!) VanMeter family fumbles their way through what was supposed to be a breezy, happy weekend.

19. The Buendías

Gabriel García Márquez’s epic work of magical realism follows the lives of seven generations of the doomed Buendía family. Even as tragedy looms, there is too much beauty in these pages to want to look away.

20. The Witherspoons

More like two dysfunctional families! Silver Sparrow is the story of a bigamist in 1980s whose half-daughters become friendly. Terrible revelations ensue, of course.

21. Jeanette’s Family in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Take one die hard evangelical Christian mother. Add an opinionated gay daughter. Watch the fireworks go off. In her highly acclaimed first novel, Jeanette Winterson takes an awful situation and makes it undeniably funny.

22. The Atwells

What deep, dark family secret could cause 15 year-old Thea to be shipped off to a fancy Southern boarding school during the Great Depression? The answer might not entirely surprise you, but Thea’s fearlessness in the pursuit of her desires is to be admired.

23. The Elbuses

It’s the 1980s, and 14 year-old June Elbus’s beloved uncle is dying of AIDS. June becomes a sympathetic, highly relatable heroine, as she tries to make sense of this tragedy and her family’s less than graceful reaction to it.

24. The Wapshots

A twentieth century classic, The Wapshot Chronicle follows, with equal parts comedy and tragedy, the lives of three generations of stalwart New Englanders.

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