As the holidays approach, we’re all looking forward to those big family gatherings. You know what I mean, right? When your large, adoring, boisterous family gets together in love and good will, and it’s all laughter, acceptance, and joyful support. Oh, wait. What’s that? Your family gatherings aren’t like that? They’re fraught with dysfunction, seething with buried secrets and lies, and hidden rivalries? Well – join the club.
When we first meet the Maroni clan at the beginning of my twentieth novel SECLUDED CABIN SLEEPS SIX, on the surface everything is glittering and idyllic. Wealthy and successful Hannah and Mako have the perfect sibling relationship, loving and supportive. Their parents are generous and kind. Hannah and Mako are both happily married – Mako to yoga influencer Liza, and Hannah to tech wizard Bruce. Hannah and Bruce dote on their new baby girl Gigi. Perfect, right? Sure.
After the decadent Christmas meal, a final stack of wrapped gifts is discovered under the tree, one for everyone — from Santa. As each family member opens the wrapping, they discover a DNA testing kit. And everyone has a very different reaction. Who left the gifts? Why? What is it supposed to mean? There are only questions that Christmas night. And the answers, when they come, will unravel the lives of each family member – one by one.
Family relationships are such rich veins to mine. Characters with layered motives, that terrible tangle of love and anger, secrets that fester, lies that become the truth. So, if your family drama is not enough, or if you just want to feel like maybe your brood is not that bad, check out one of these novels that do a deep dive into the darkest family dynamics.
HE STARTED IT by Samantha Downing
Ah, the family road trip. What could be more nourishing than time in an enclosed space with your adult siblings? When the Morgan family takes to the road to fulfill their grandfather’s final wishes — and to secure their inheritance — dysfunction is pushed to the max. Twisted, diabolically clever, and with a colorful cast of characters, Downing’s riveting novel will have you wanting to punch your brother in the arm and pull your sister’s hair. She perfectly captures that tangle of love, anger, loyalty and rivalry that underpins the sibling dynamic. You’ll be laughing on one page and cringing on the next as Beth, Portia, Eddie and their significant others hurtle towards the stunning conclusion.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan
Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy everything else. When Nicholas Young brings his girlfriend, New Yorker Rachel Chu, home to Singapore to meet his family, there are a few things he didn’t tell her. For example, that his childhood home looks more like a palace, that because of his family’s extreme ancestral wealth he’s the country’s most eligible bachelor, and that Rachel as the woman he loves basically has a target on her back. This is a delightful confection of a novel, a voyeuristic thrill ride into a world of over-the-top wealth and glamor, even as it explores the very deep themes of class, ancestry, and the complications of being a modern woman in an ancient society. A manipulative matriarch, wild cousins, and a slew of scheming aunties add layers, tension, and richness to this funny but sharp exploration of family, culture, and modern love.
SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn
Psychologically fragile Camille Preaker returns to her hometown as a reporter covering the unsolved murder of one child and the disappearance of another. Estranged from her unstable mother, and an essential stranger to her manipulative younger half-sister, back at home Camille quickly finds herself in emotional quicksand. Reconnected with her family, back in her childhood bedroom, Camille sinks deeper into the investigation, feeling a deep identification to the victims. Scarred physically and emotionally from her terrible childhood, Camille must face the truth about her mother, her younger sister, and the sister she lost to a mysterious illness in childhood. Flynn pulls no punches, and dives deep into the ugly, complicated layers of family dysfunction, horrific abuse, and self-harm. This is a twisting, dark, and painful story, as hard to take as it is impossible to put down.
BLACKTOP WASTELAND by S. A. Cosby
Beauregard (Bug) is on the straight and narrow, a business owner, loving father and devoted husband. He’s left behind his other life, and his family legacy, as the best wheelman on the east coast. But making ends meet is a struggle. So, when his brother and former partners dangle one last job, the heist that can’t go wrong, Bug feels that he has no choice but to go along. Bug has other choices, and his wife Kia tries to make him see that. But the pull back to his old ways is just too strong. With searing prose and bone-deep understanding of his characters, Cosby reveals all the layers of Bug’s predicament — poverty, paternity, the lure of easy money, and the thrill of that one last job. This is a raw, moving, noir classic about hard choices, the riptide of dark family history, and the crush of poverty, as powerful and fast as any muscle car.
FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC by V.C. Andrews
I think it’s safe to say that this Gothic 1979 novel – and the many sequels that follow — is the first word in family dysfunction. The Dollanganger children are locked in a secluded upstairs room (okay, the attic) by their widowed mother Corrine because she needs to hide their existence from her billionaire father as she tries to get herself reinstated in the will. It’s only for a few days! What’s the harm? But a year later, the children are still locked away and have come to learn that they are the product of incest. A year turns into more and Corinne’s daily visits become sporadic. Starving and desperate, older siblings Cathy and Chris start to scheme about how they can escape with their younger siblings the twins, whose health is understandably fading. I read this book at an inappropriately early age, and the siblings, their terribly unhealthy but loving relationships, Foxworth Hall, the systemic abuse they all suffered at the hands of their mother and “the grandmother” (just saying, beware the powdered donuts) not only have stayed with me but maybe in some ways formed me as a writer. As outlandish as the story can be, Andrews proves that character is king. You never stop caring about damaged siblings – and you’ll never forget them.