’Tis the season for family dysfunction, and what better way to break from a tense holiday gathering than to laugh your way through someone else’s? This quartet of lean, mean comic novels generate razor-sharp humor by hitting close to home — and offer the perfect diversion when your Trump-loving uncle starts to circle.
The Adults by Caroline Hulse
The Adults competently executes a delectable premise: For the sake of their young daughter, exes Matt and Claire agree to spend Christmas together — along with their new romantic partners — at the stridently festive Happy Forest holiday park. Things go as (poorly) planned; Matt and Claire inspire envy in their other halves as they bond and reminisce. Hulse skewers her characters uproariously, zeroing in on every quirk, and she humanizes them, too. Less successful is the tired framing device. The novel begins with a whodunit and unpeels the mystery, slowly, through police transcripts. The shocking crime is less compelling than the inevitable squabbles, which we never get enough of. So much resentment, so little time. B —David Canfield
Sharpness Rating: 🔪🔪🔪
Come With Me by Helen Schulman
The best-selling novelist (This Beautiful Life) continues to test the limits of “family” fiction in Come With Me, a high-wire domestic dramedy that conjures the bravura style of both The Nest and The Corrections, with surreal touches of Silicon Valley sci-fi. Fortysomething Amy Reed once dreamed of working in movies; instead, she’s doing PR for the son of her best friend from college — a brilliant, poorly socialized Stanford undergrad who may have invented a (literally) life-changing algorithm. She also has an inscrutable teenage son, overactive twins, and a chronically unemployed husband hitting his own kind of midlife skid. In tart, emotionally intelligent prose, Come delivers social satire with that rarest attribute: a heart. A– —Leah Greenblatt
Sharpness Rating: 🔪🔪🔪🔪
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Serial Killer opens on a terrifyingly routine image: Korede coming to her sister Ayoola’s side, yet again, to help her hide a body. This time Ayoola couldn’t even get through a month with her boyfriend before stabbing him square in the heart. Ayoola claims self-defense. But Korede wonders, irritated by the burden: Why was she carrying a knife?
Braithwaite’s debut is a master class in deadpan, its humor so muted and knowing it feels effortlessly baked into the tragedy. The slim chapters — coming in at a few pages — are stacked with heavy, sardonic cynicism. They teem with the love and rivalry and pain inherent to any close sibling relationship. And they turn (irresistibly) insane as the twists accelerate, entangling the sisters deeper and deeper in a web of death and deceit. The novel comes to a head as Korede’s crush Tade, the handsome doctor who works in her hospital, expresses an interest in Ayoola. So the sisterly bond — Korede’s allegiance, Ayoola’s luck — is put to the test. Serial Killer stays as forebodingly light as a black cloud, but as the pace quickens, it wisely exposes misogyny, corruption, and the perils of social media, against the vividly original backdrop of contemporary Lagos. Trust: There’s more to this Killer than the trail of bodies left behind. B+ —DC
Sharpness Rating: 🔪🔪🔪🔪
Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky
Selecky bucks expectations in her satirical portrait of estranged cousins Lilian, an artist obsessed with social media and finding enlightenment, and Eleven, a guru behind the cultish organization called the Ascendancy. They collide as only this cultural moment could allow. Lilian goes to work for Eleven and her queasily exploitative firm, selling empowerment for profit, and buys into the baloney. Selecky doesn’t judge her, however, instead offering a radically gentle takedown of capitalist spiritualism. The author sacrifices bite for empathy, but as she scrolls through curated Instagram feeds and transcribes inane seminars, she still finds plenty to make fun of in this ridiculous — yet frighteningly familiar — world. B+ —DC
Sharpness Rating: 🔪🔪