1. Beloved by Toni Morrison
After escaping slavery and fleeing to Ohio, Sethe struggles to start a new life for herself and her daughter, Denver, plagued by the traumatic memories of their past.
Something Sethe & Co. should bring up in therapy: Ghost babies.
2. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Say what you will about Franzen, but his intimate portrayal of the Lambert family's slow slide into chaos is utterly entrancing.
All in the family: Parkinson's, Marxism, alcoholism, depression, dementia, adultery, talking poop.
3. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Having just been discharged from a brief stay at the psych hospital, Camille Preaker returns to her hometown to cover the murder of two pre-teen girls. Naturally, she decides this is also the time to reconnect (and move in with) her neurotic mother and estranged half-sister; what could possibly go wrong?
Note to self: Never, for any reason whatsoever, move back in with your parents.
4. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
"Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the "Fun Home." It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve."
So...does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?: Duh.
5. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
If you haven't yet read anything by Sedaris, this is the perfect place to start.
~Relatable moments~: A failed family vacation, (day-late) trick or treating, prepubescent strip poker, getting locked out of the house in the snow for being annoying, getting kicked out of the house for being gay, etc.
6. Game of Thrones George R.R. Martin
Too many kinds of fucked up to count.
Pick a house, any house:
Stark — bastard sons and early deaths, but also kickass pets
Targaryen — insanity, incest, arranged marriage, really dangerous pets
Greyjoy — daddy issues
Arryn — mommy/milky issues
Frey — pedophilia, mass murder
Lannister — incest, Joffrey
7. Push: A Novel by Sapphire
Between relentless familial verbal, physical, and sexual abuse and the hardships of extreme poverty, 16-year-old Precious Jones simply cannot seem to catch a break — until she does.
Brace yourself for: Total devastation and a glimmer of hope.
8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
How to Get Away with Murder but for Classics majors. Watch a group of misfit students become their own de facto family, with all the dysfunction and infighting that involves.
Come for the intrigue, stay for the: Lush prose. Also, twincest.
9. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
What's a good funeral+shiva without too-honest discussions of infertility, infidelity, rekindled romance, and a surprise pregnancy? This is Where I Leave You is a pitch-perfect portrait of the tragicomic ties that bind.
“Even under the best of circumstances, there's just something so damn tragic about growing up.”
“Who's the little whore now, bitch?”
10. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Meet aspiring "Dominican J.R.R Tolkien" Oscar Wao, whose wild life (and that of his rebel grandfather, resilient mom, and runaway sister) is inimitably narrated by too-cool roommate and friend Yunior. Despite the tragedy that weaves itself inextricably into the de León's meandering multi-generational story, they are, above all, a people of unwavering passion and persistence.
Something the de Leóns should bring up in therapy: Golden mongooses.
11. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Reading The Glass Castle is like rubbernecking a traffic accident — you just can't look away from Walls' heart-rending wreck of a childhood. That being said, she recounts her neglectful upbringing with remarkable nuance, allowing her alcoholic father and artist mother's good intentions to shine through amidst all the chaos.
Alternative title: How Not To Raise A Family
12. Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
"Held captive by her employers — and by her own demons — on a mysterious farm, a widow struggles to reunite with her young son in this uniquely American story of freedom, perseverance, and survival."
Watch out for: A whole new twist on the unreliable narrator.
13. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Thanks to a secret passed down through three generations of her family, Callie discovers that she is not at all like the other girls at her school. Middlesex is the expansive and exquisite story of Callie reckoning with her history and identity, and being reborn as an intersex man.
Note to self: Find out how your grandparents really met.
14. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Two dysfunctional families for the price of one! Meet unlikely friends Archie and Samad, WWII vets whose respective troubles with fatherhood and marriage are at once charming and tragic. Having married a Jamaican woman half his age on a whim, Archie is now struggling to raise a daughter with her, while Samad finds himself stranded in a joyless arranged marriage and father to unruly twins.
"Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies."
"You are never stronger...than when you land on the other side of despair."
15. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Ever wonder what it would be like to come of age in the chaos of your mother's psychiatrist's dilapidated Victorian mansion, replete with a working electroshock therapy machine and a revolving door of mental patients? Welcome to 12-year-old Augusten Burrough's raucous reality in Running with Scissors.
Alternative title: No More Valium, Please
16. The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
Piercingly funny and boldly unsentimental, Karr's memoir of her eccentric East Texas childhood is compulsively readable — a wild ride through and through. She and her sister are proof that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger — and hopefully gives you a good sense of humor to cope.
"A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it."
17. We the Animals by Justin Torres
Facing neglect at the hands of young parents, three brothers are left to do their growing up on their own.
Brace yourself for: A brief but brutal rendition of the Bildungsroman.
18. The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Deliciously, devastatingly dark, Patrick Melrose's many misfortunes are proof that, even when life gives you really shitty lemons, you can still make lemonade.
All in the family: Child abuse, addiction, adultery, assisted suicide, a sham Irish Shaman, etc.
19. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Esch is 14 and pregnant, with only her brothers to take care of her and Hurricane Katrina bearing down to wreak havoc on all their lives.
Note to self: Maybe www.DoesTheDogDie.com should exist for books, too...
20. Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Random Family is truly unlike anything you'll ever read: the culmination of 10 years' research into the lives of a small community of people in the Bronx. The sheer volume of information — about real romances, deaths, dreams, crimes, triumphs, and calamities — is astounding, especially when paired with LeBlanc's attentive and empathic characterizations of the young men and women she came to know. Coco, Cesar, Jessica, and Boy George are characters who will stick with you forever.
Brace yourself for: Reality.
21. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
What happens when two failed carnies breed their own flesh-and-blood freak show? You get flipper-limbed Arturo, albino hunchback Oly, telekinetic Chick, an amputation-based cult, and more misfortune than you can shake a stick (or human tail) at.
For fans of: American Horror Story: Freak Show? Just kidding; this is infinitely better than anything Ryan Murphy could dream up.
22. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
James Witherspoon has two separate families in the same small town. When his two daughters — only one of whom knows that they're actually sisters — finally meet, all their lives begin to unravel.
"My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."
23. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
It really doesn't get any more messed up than the Vanger family, who are harboring secrets far more sinister than the mysterious disappearance of young Harriet 40 years ago. Lisbeth Salander's home life also leaves a lot to be desired.
Vangers to keep track of: Harriet, Henrik, Harald, Birger, Gottfried, Isabella, Anita, Cecilia, Martin, etc.
24. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
"This is the story of two sisters — one a missionary in Africa and the other a child wife living in the South — who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence. Beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate, this classic novel of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life."
Watch out for: Men.
25. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
The granddaddy of all epic family sagas, One Hundred Years of Solitude spans seven generations of the Buendía family and their many, many misfortunes.
All in the family: Ghosts, golden fish, twins switched at birth, buried treasure, death by ants, a military massacre, blood poisoning, weird dolls, gypsies, infanticide, fratricide, suicide, and, yes, incest.
26. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
You know from the very first page (and total lack of embalming fluid) that this road trip is not going to end well for recently deceased Addie and her kin. As I Lay Dying is Murphy's Law writ large.
"My mother is a fish."
27. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Is it too late for the Wingo family to come to terms with the hellish night of trauma that forever altered all their lives? It's up to Tom to save his sister from psychosis and gather up the pieces of his own tarnished past. The good news: He actually does see a therapist (and also maybe falls in love with her).
All in the family: Abusive father, absent mother, adultery, a pet tiger, renegade whale rescue, guerrilla swamp warfare, major depressive disorder, attempted suicide, etc.
28. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Matt has gathered all his wife's friends and family around her to say goodbye before she's taken off life support. There's just one person he hasn't yet called: the man with whom she had been having an affair. And so he and his daughters — feisty 10-year-old Scottie and 17-year-old recovering drug addict Alex — set out to find his wife's lover.
"Why is it so hard to articulate love yet so easy to express disappointment?"
"She'll be there for the rest of your life. She'll be there on birthdays, at Christmastime, when you get your period, when you graduate, have sex, when you marry, have children, when you die. She'll be there and she won't be there."
29. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
Two nice suburban families stranded together during an epic Thanksgiving ice storm — what could possibly go wrong?
Come for the food, stay for the: Fracas.
30. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Two professional performance artists meet, fall in love, have some kids, and the rest is history. Or, actually, the rest is art. Really, really weird art.
Watch out for: A skee ball to the face. Also potato gunfire and a movie about Nazi dinosaurs.
31. The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips
13-year-old Tangy Mae is the seventh of ten children but, being darker complected than all the rest, has been singled out by her mother for a path altogether different from those of her siblings. The hardships Tangy Mae endures in 1950s Jim Crow Georgia are unfathomable, but perhaps more astounding is her ability to rise above it all.
Brace yourself for: Tears.
32. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
"At the top of the stairs there are four secrets hidden: Blond, beautiful, innocent, and struggling to stay alive. Despite their loving mother assurance that it will be just for a little while, the Dollanganger siblings soon realize their survival is at the mercy of their cruel and superstitious grandmother — as their cramped captivity swells from days into agonizing months and years."
For fans of: The Lifetime movie adaptation.
33. I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
You can be assured that any book starting with a gruesome self-inflicted amputation will only get more intense from there. Enter the lives of Dominick and his now-one-handed twin brother Thomas, trying and failing to reconcile their past with a functional present. Only after Dominick digs up his grandfather's bizarre, fractured fairy tale of an autobiography do all the pieces start to come together.
All in the family: Paranoid schizophrenia, SIDS, AIDS, absent fathers, suicide, voyeurism, Native American casino rights, witchcraft, conspiracy theories, child abuse, date rape, murder, etc.
34. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Eva Khatchadourian has been tasked with the unthinkable: Trying to understand how — and why — her own son became a school shooter.
Alternative title: Nature Nor Nurture
35. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Raising twins as a single mother in India circa 1969 is no easy feat, especially when bitter old maid Baby Kochamma won't stop sticking her nose in everybody's business...
Come for the sprawling family and political drama, stay for: Even more drama! (Also, some incest.)
36. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Two words: Chimpanzee sister.
All in the family: Literally a chimpanzee raised as a human.
37. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
"At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti — to the women who first reared her."
Alternative title: Trust No One, Especially Not Your Mom
38. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
"The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa."
Alternative title: Good Intentions Do Not A Functional Family Make
39. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I mean, read the opening line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Come for the radiant realist prose, stay for the: Brutal Russian heartbreak.