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7 Books About Families to Read at Thanksgiving

If you need an escape from your relatives, bury your nose in one of these engrossing narratives about other families / BY Athena McKenzie / October 8th, 2021

Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina famously opens with the line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Holidays such as Thanksgiving can highlight dysfunctional relationships, but reading about other families  and their problems – can be the perfect distraction. These picks, which include dramas, thrillers and memoirs,  all use complex family dynamics to craft compelling narratives.

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1The Promise by Damon Galgut

Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, South African writer Damon Galgut’s novel The Promise follows the Swart family – descendants of white, Dutch settlers – through tumultuous social and political change in South Africa. Beginning in 1986, it moves toward the present as the estranged family reunites for four funerals over three decades. Overshadowing everything is an unmet promise to their long-time Black servant that she will inherit the modest house she lives in. The damaged family serves as the heart of a novel that explores the volatile race relations of the country at large.   

2Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente

Billed as “part memoir and part manifesto,” Unreconciled is Anishinaabe writer Jesse Wente’s personal exploration of the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples. The child of an American father and an Anishinaabe mother, Wente grew up in Toronto, although he was a regular visitor to the reserve where his mother’s family lived. Through an exploration of  his family’s history – including his grandmother’s experiences as a residential school survivor – Wente questions the concept of reconciliation and explores new approaches that might help build a positive relationship between the nation of Canada and Indigenous peoples.

3The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall

With her new novel, Toronto writer Zoe Whittall explores the lives of three generations of Canadian women: Missy, who we meet in 1997 when her band is about to make it big; her mother Carola, who abandoned Missy as a child; and Missy’s paternal grandmother, Ruth, who wants to return to the Turkish village where she grew up. The Spectacular explores the relationships between mothers and daughters, overturning preconceptions about family, love, gender and history, and underlining how family isn’t always about blood relations. 

4The Survivors by Alex Schulman

Journalist Alex Schulman is the co-host of Sweden’s most popular podcast Alex & Sigges. He also writes novels, although The Survivors is the first to be published internationally. It follows three brothers as they return to a lake house after the death of their mother. But this is not a comforting family retreat, since the lake is the site of a devastating accident that irreparably changed their lives two decades before.  

5Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

Beloved CNN anchor Anderson Cooper teams up with the New York Times bestselling historian and novelist Katherine Howe to tell the story of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and her legendary American family. Synonymous with unfettered American capitalism and high society, generations of Vanderbilts lived in unimaginable excess, with extremes of success and failure – including bitter fights over the estates. This insider perspective gives a tantalizing look at the triumphs and tragedies of a remarkable family, taking readers from the wharves of Staten Island to the lavish drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue in the Gilded Age, and from the ornate summer palaces of Rhode Island to the courts of Europe. 

6The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard

With his sprawling six-volume fictional memoir My Struggle, Norwegian writer Knausgaard proved himself the modern master of the dysfunctional family. With The Morning Star, he embraces fiction with a more fantastic bent: a new star appears over Bergen, causing mysterious occurrences. Told through multiple narrators, Knausgaard unsparingly depicts multiple layers of family problems, including infidelity, neglect, estrangement, addiction … and the list goes on. It’s a reminder that every family is messed up, although it might take a celestial event to reveal it.

7The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig

Family is often at the centre of horror novels, and Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents is a prime example. Nate, Maddie and their son Oliver move to the small town where Nate grew up a few weeks after his father – who abused him – dies. Things start to go weird almost immediately, and the three family members are embroiled in an ancient battle between good and evil, and even pitted against one other. Wendig is in Stephen King territory here, and The Book of Accidents might be that perfect bridge from Thanksgiving to Halloween. 



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