What Tolstoy famously said about unhappy families is still one of fiction’s greatest truisms — and bless that mess, because if they weren’t all miserable in their own way, half our favorite books probably wouldn’t exist.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s spring breakout The Nest, which already garnered the debut novelist a seven-figure advance and a glut of early praise (EW’s included) is just that kind of read: A smartly wrought window into the world of four near-middle-aged siblings forced to wrangle over the fate of their suddenly AWOL inheritance—and the muddled directions of their own lives—in modern-day Manhattan.
If you’re already onboard and are looking for more smart, fizzy reads in the same vein, we have a few suggestions. (For freshness’ sake we’re not including some that are already considered 21st-century classics, like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, or basically anything by Jonathan Franzen; also not on the list are all-timers like Faulkner, Marquez, Tolstoy’s fellow tortured Russians, or, you know, Shakespeare.)
Instead, we’re focusing narrowly on recent novels about characters born with every advantage–for the most part they’re smart, healthy, well-educated and excellently insured–who still somehow manage to plumb new depths of emotional wreckage, especially when it comes to the unfortunate souls who share their DNA.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
New Yorkers Franny and Jim aim to spend two dreamy summer weeks with their teenage daughter Sylvia on the Spanish island of Majorca before she heads off for college in the fall. The arrival of other guests–siblings, best friends, ex-lovers, and inordinately sexy locals among them–interrupts that idyll, in pretty much all the ways you hope it would. (Straub’s latest, Modern Lovers, is due May 31, and promises to deliver more of the same.)
The Rocks by Peter Nichols
More Majorca! Because why not be somewhere sun-baked and gorgeous with your misery. This time there are two British expat families intertwined: Their history together goes back generations, and is embroidered with decades of unspoken alliances, betrayals and misunderstandings that Nichols cleverly unpacks in reverse.
The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Incest, addiction, and wanton disregard for anything resembling good parenting are just the beginning of this acidic series that follows several generations of addled British aristocrats with the narcotic tolerance of pack mules and the moral fiber of hyenas; over five volumes, Aubyn writes about them all like the best, most unholy alliance of Oscar Wilde and Bret Easton Ellis.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Another summer and another island, this time off the coast of Massachusetts with a wedding party — and beneath the WASP-y veneer of popped collars and propriety, a wild tangle of secrets and subplots. (FYI Shipstead’s later book, Astonish Me, is even better, and also at least partially family-focused).
The Privileges by Jonathan Dee
Dee works a little Gatsby and a little Gordon Gekko into his tale of a self-made Wall Street tycoon, his ruthless, damaged wife, and the children they raise to inherit the unquestioning ease of the one percent. Spoiler alert: Things go awry.
Readers, what are your favorite novels about the luckiest unlucky families?