The Great American Family Novel_3_1

The 20 best American family novels (from the post-Obama era)

By Seija Rankin and David Canfield
December 18, 2018 at 11:00 AM EST

The Obama era ushered in a new way of thinking about the American family, and literature was no exception. With the holidays upon us, EW has chosen the 20 best post-2008 family novels, all of which redefine the bond in different — and exhilarating — ways.


The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

A fortune-teller predicts the exact death dates of four young siblings. Over their lives, each digests this information in different ways — one runs to San Francisco; another throws herself into scientific research — and balances familial bonds with escaping their predestined paths.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s devastating 720-pager was heralded as its era’s Great Gay American Novel upon publication, but its generous, intimate depiction of a queer family feels equally revolutionary — intricately tracing four friends’ lives through three decades of triumph and tragedy, hope and loss. Its consummate rendering of gay men’s interior lives never simplifies, even as death permeates the novel. What never dies is their love for one another.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Plenty of novels have centered on marriage, but few carry the weight, the richness, or the innovation of this duplicitous tome, which charts the life of playwright Lotto and seemingly doting Mathilde. Fates proves that the relationship between husband and wife can indeed carry the same layers of love, grief, and mystery as any big, sprawling, secretive family.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

A marital tale set at the dawn of the Obama era, Dreamers illuminates the immigrant experience with a vivid intensity and speaks rather alarmingly to the era that has followed. As a Cameroonian couple living in Harlem suffer through the financial crisis, Mbue asks, poignantly and presciently: Who is the American dream for?

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A much-needed reminder — especially now — that not all American families are American. This sweeping novel follows childhood sweethearts forced to separate because of bureaucratic red tape. Ifemelu, our protagonist, winds up at Princeton, where she builds new bonds and searches for a sense of security as a Nigerian woman living in the United States.


Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Haslett reflects the evolving conversation around mental health in the U.S. with this heartbreaker. A father’s struggle with depression informs an entire family legacy, most directly his eldest son’s mental instability. Here’s a definitive exploration of inherited trauma, triumphantly reclaiming the humanity of sorrow.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Can anything atone for the death of a child? When a neighbor’s boy is accidentally shot and killed, a North Dakota couple choose to honor Ojibwe tradition and sacrifice their own son to the grieving parents. What follows is a raw, poignant meditation on the reach and limits of forgiveness.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The role of food as a symbol of familial love and control, especially in immigrant culture, shapes Attenberg’s sharply observed novel about a Ukrainian Jewish family in suburban Chicago whose lives are formed around the morbid obesity of their matriarch, Edie — a woman who’s spent years “stewing in her own flesh, in the layers of hate and frustration and anger and heartbreak that she had been building up for so long.”

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon portrays American family life like few of his era — writing seamlessly across decades and genres, between races and sexualities, on scales both intimate and epic. But his most recent novel, Moonglow, hit much closer to home. The book grew out of his conversations with his dying grandfather. “I invented grandparents for myself whom I could know completely,” Chabon says. He fashioned a family story rooted in memory and permeating that tender sense of loss, marking a culmination of his shift from son — whose dad left home when he was 12 — to father. “It’s supposed to be painful,” he says of the transition. “It’s only through making our families that many of us actually find families.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s families are haunted. Her breakout novel, Salvage the Bones, enters a household grappling with poverty near the Gulf of Mexico in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina; her most recent, Sing, Unburied, Sing, takes a spiritual-surreal look at a big, troubled, complex Mississippi clan. (Both won the National Book Award.) The past hovers over these stories like ghosts, connecting families to the history of their Deep South communities — which Ward also calls home. In her lyrical renderings, parents and children come to astonishing life, timeless in their compassion. “The families I portray in my work reflect my own experience,” she says. “This is the fabric of my own life and the lives of those around me.”

The Son by Philipp Meyer

Firmly rooted in classics of its type, The Son updates the historical American family epic with emotional urgency. Meyer’s expansive, dusty chronicle of a powerful Texan dynasty (the book was adapted into an AMC series starring Pierce Brosnan) meditates on violence and greed in the American West and offers provocations on how one generation’s experience with senseless brutality shapes the next.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The generation-spanning saga is hardly original to fiction — not even to this list — but The Turner House finds vitality by living where many are afraid to even look: in the heart of Detroit, where streets crumble but communities persevere, and in the home of a black family vying to assert — amid history’s stains and bigotry’s durability — their right to live. Resilience has never felt so American.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

In her prize-winning fiction, Patchett has explored everything from opera singers in South America to pharmacologists in the jungles of Brazil — though none hit quite as hard as her deeply felt depiction of a blended family, drawn from her own chaotic upbringing. “When I was in school, I really did believe that you could choose your own family,” she tells EW, “that blood had very little to do with it. But as time goes by, I see how completely I am bound to the people I share DNA with… That very classic idea of family has proven to be bedrock for me.”

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng has been thinking aboutfamily a lot as she gets to work on her third book. “There is this question of how much our families shape us,” she says. “And how much we shape ourselves in opposition to our families.” The author’s two best-selling novels have explored themes of connection and kinship, but in starkly different ways — her debut, Everything I Never Told You, focuses on the secrets we keep to protect our loved ones, while Little Fires Everywhere muses on the family we choose for ourselves. “Looking back at my novels, I see I’m thinking about nuclear family,” says Ng. “Maybe family can mean a link other than blood kinship.”


Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Reframing the family novel as a screwball comedy, Semple skewers an übermodern milieu — contemporary Seattle, rife with tech millionaires and eco-obsessors — as she unfurls a rather sad story of a teenager searching restlessly for her missing mother. The satire resonates no less than Bernadette’s beating heart: the love between mother and daughter.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections focuses again on a dysfunctional, rather unhappy nuclear family, but before long veers into the sharp political divide that’s become all too familiar in the post-Obama years. A liberal couple in Minnesota, once beacons of the neighborhood, contend with their son moving in with Republican neighbors — and their own marriage falling apart.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

There are hard-driving showbiz dads and overbearing momagers, and then there are the Fangs: a couple so committed to real-life-as-performance-art that they sacrifice nearly every idea of decent parenting — and basic humanity — in Wilson’s witty, bracingly unsentimental tale (later turned, alas, into a less-than-stellar 2016 dramedy starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman).

The Nix by Nathan Hill

At its core, The Nix is about a young boy’s abandonment by his elusive activist mother. But the scope of Hill’s ambitious, astonishing debut — currently under option by J.J. Abrams for a television series starring Meryl Streep — touches on everything from modern academia, video game addiction, and 1960s radicalism to the Iraq War, a romance set in post-9/11 New York, and even classic Norse mythology.

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

This is a tense, buzzy take on the fraught dynamics between adult siblings — think The Family Stone meets August: Osage County. The family reunion at hand here, sparked by the death of the patriarch, triggers news of adultery, divorce, and the reminder that in times of grief, sometimes the only cure for tears is laughter.

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

When self-made millionaire Charles Wang loses it all in the 2008 financial crash, he abandons his Bel Air mansion to foreclosure and heads across country with his second wife and two youngest children — one a style-obsessed teenager, the other an aspiring stand-up comedian — to visit his eldest (who’s dealing with an emotional crisis of her own) in Chang’s wise, funny refutation of every Asian American-as-model-minority cliché.

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