(This is my 100th post!)
People often ask me what types of books I like to read. The fact is, I read a lot of different genres—both fiction and nonfiction. But I do love to read novels, and if pressed to choose one type of novel that I enjoy the most, it would have to be contemporary, realistic, dramatic fiction about family relationships.
For this week’s Tuesday Ten, I’ve put together a list of my ten favorite books in this category. I own copies of all of these books and have read all of them more than once—there are a couple that I’ve probably read nearly ten times over the years. A few may be out of print (but definitely worth looking for at the library or in used bookstores!), and a couple are pretty recent. Most of them would be excellent book club discussion titles. Ready? In no particular order, here we go!
1. I love Anna Quindlen’s essays. Her novels have been a little bit hit-and-miss for me. However, Every Last One, her most recent novel, is a book that packs a huge punch and has stayed with me for a long time. I’m not going to say too much about the plot because I don’t want to be a spoiler—briefly, it’s the story of a suburban family going through everyday rituals and routines, until one New Years’ Eve when everything changes. That’s all I’m going to say. If you admire writing that gets inside of you and won’t let go, read this book.
2. I really like a lot of Beth Gutcheon’s novels, especially her older ones—it was tough to pick my favorite. But I finally decided to go with Domestic Pleasures, which was the first book by Gutcheon that I ever read. She wrote it about twenty years ago, but it remains the most authentic novel I’ve ever read about modern relationships. The dialogue in this book, whether it’s between lovers, parents and children, or estranged couples, is spot on—I can HEAR these characters in my head. As you make your way through this novel, Gutcheon’s skillful writing causes the many intertwined relationships throughout the storylines to become clearer and clearer. There are lines in this book that still make me laugh—and there are a couple of scenes that still break my heart. This is a wonderful book.
3. I think that one of the marks of a great book is how much it makes us think and examine ourselves. The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer is a great book for just that reason. Very briefly, it’s the story of a young woman in the Midwest who is engaged to her high school sweetheart, and who, after college graduation, realizes that, although she still cares for her fiancé, she’s suffocating and needs to get out of the relationship. Before she can make any moves to break off the engagement, her fiancé is left paralyzed due to a diving accident. The rest of the book deals with choices—does she stay, or does she leave? Should she think of her fiancé, or of herself? I first read this novel as a book club selection, and it provoked very intense discussions when we met to talk about it. It seemed as though people either loved this book or hated it. I know that it really made me think about how far we should go to be true to ourselves, and how much we owe to the ones we love, or have loved. This is one of my favorite novels ever.
4. Anne Tyler is another author who I don’t always love—there are a few of her books that I’ve just never been able to get into. Digging To America isn’t one of them—I was hooked on these characters from the first chapter. It’s the story of two couples who are adopting baby girls from Korea—their new daughters are coming to Baltimore on the same flight, and the two adoptive couples (one American, one Iranian-American) and their extended families meet at the airport while waiting for their new children. The novel then traces the continuing relationships that these family members have with each other over the next several years. It’s a compelling story of different cultures, different parenting styles, and different customs—and it’s also a story about what it means to assimilate, and what it means to hold on to tradition.
5. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld got a lot of press when it came out in 2008—it’s widely known that the author based the plot on former First Lady Laura Bush’s life. However you may feel about Laura Bush and/or her husband, American Wife is a delicious family saga. Forever changed by her role in a tragedy that occurred during her teens, the main character is swept off her feet by a charming, wealthy son from a powerful political family, finds herself immersed in a world of privilege and drama—and eventually finds herself married to a man she simultaneously loves and disagrees with in terms of political agenda. This book really made me think about how much and what kinds of compromises are needed to make relationships work–and how much you can compromise while still staying true to yourself. This 500+ page book is perfect to sink into during these cold winter months!
6. This is the oldest novel on my list—Family Secrets was written by Rona Jaffe back in 1974. Trust me—this epic, multi-generational family saga still holds up today. Beginning in New York City in the early 1900s, it’s the story of a Jewish immigrant from Russia who eventually becomes a very wealthy businessman. It’s also the story of his many children, their spouses, and their own children—and, most of all, it’s the story of the secrets they keep from outsiders, and from each other. You couldn’t ask for a better beach read, or a better book to take your mind off the cold, dreary days of winter!
7. Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors, and The Pact is the book that started my appreciation for her writing. It’s the story of two families who have lived next door to each other for years—and the story of the son from one family and the daughter from the other who are basically destined to end up together. They’ve been soul mates since birth, and it’s no surprise to anyone when they begin dating. When they’re in high school, the daughter is found dead with the son beside her. He says it was a suicide pact that he just couldn’t complete. The police have their doubts about his role in her death. Told by alternating flashbacks with the current events, the book is partly a suspenseful detective story, partly the story of how families deal with tragedy and conflict, and partly how expectations affect us—and it’s also a story about how well we really know the ones we love.
8. Avery Corman wrote the novel Kramer Versus Kramer which was adapted into one of my favorite films. He’s also written several other novels and I’ve enjoyed almost all of them—but I think A Perfect Divorce is my favorite. The focus of the book is a New York City couple who find that they are gradually growing apart and eventually divorce, but stay amicably connected through their son. When their son goes off to college, he finds that his parents’ high expectations clash with his own uncertainties about his life, and he makes a series of decisions that rock his parents’ world. I think this book is a pretty accurate portrayal of parent/child relationships as well as a look at how parents and children need to balance expectations with healthy reality.
9. I really like Stewart O’Nan and I wish his novels were more well-known. One of my favorites is Songs For The Missing. It’s the story of the summer that a college-aged girl disappears, and how the aftermath affects her family and friends—from the initial publicity of the disappearance, to the investigation of the details, to the struggle to maintain hope once the newspapers and TV stations move on to other stories. The narration of this story is unique in that some details are only partially explained, leaving us to fill in some of the blanks for ourselves. This is another novel that has stayed with me—I still find myself thinking about some of these characters, and that’s a sign of a great author.
10. Another great book club book, This Is My Daughter by Roxana Robinson tells the story of a man and woman living in NYC, both recovering from failed first marriages, who are struggling to raise young daughters, and who decide to take the plunge and create a new start and a new combined family. Their two daughters, of course, really have no say in the matter. This book promotes a lot of discussion about loyalty, compromise, and unconditional love.
Now it’s your turn! Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think? Are there any other books that you think could be added to my list? Please share!