This is a guest post by Barbara Claypole White. She grew up in rural England, studied history at York University, and worked in London fashion before marrying an American professor she met at JFK Airport. Today they live in the forests of North Carolina with their award-winning poet son. Despite detours through journalism and marketing, Barbara chased her dream of becoming a novelist and was thrilled to find a publisher months before turning 50. Her next novel, Echoes of Family, hits shelves on September 27.
Who doesn’t love to read about dysfunctional families that shine in moments of darkness or ordinary families thrown into extraordinary situations? When I started this list, my mind went straight to Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Karen White’s grit lit, and everything by Lisa Genova. There are many great books in this category, but here’s an eclectic mix pulled from the old, the new, and the about-to-be released.
Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach
This sweet story, filled with love, compassion, and hope, highlights the horrifically high divorce rate for parents of special needs kids. At the heart of the novel is a mother’s determination to find new ways to help her young son after he’s diagnosed with autism. Even as her marriage fails, Melanie is courageous, strong, and unforgettable. One for the must-reread pile.
Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life by Melody Moezzi
Looking for a memoir in a class of its own? Try this one, written by a Hula-hooping, feminist, Muslim, Iranian-American lawyer and activist. (Did you get all that?)
With brutal honesty and dark humor, Moezzi holds nothing back in her portrayal of manic-depression and its impact on her family. Plus, Lee Smith wrote a killer blurb. I rest my case.
The Things We Keep by Sally Hepworth
Still Alice meets The Rosie Project in this beautiful story about love, broken families, and Alzheimer’s. It weaves together two family tragedies through three exceptional voices: Anna, a 38-year-old patient in an assisted living facility; Eve, the facility’s new cook, who has lost everything except her seven-year-old daughter; and little Clementine who’s trying bravely to adjust to a new life despite a class bully. Even as Anna’s mind fails, the impact of her love affair with the only other young resident, Luke, remains. So good.
I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around by Ann Garvin
On the surface, this is another novel about the challenges of Alzheimer’s, but it’s also a heart-warming, funny, and gritty story with one kick-ass heroine. I’m part of the sandwich generation, and I was cheering for quirky psychologist, Tig Monahan, from page one. Nothing in her life is on track as she tries — and fails — to juggle her career, boyfriend, wayward sister, colicky niece, a lawsuit, and being her mother’s caregiver. Even when she appears to give up, none of it breaks her.
Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain
I’m a huge Diane Chamberlain fan, and Graham, the wheelchair-bound father with MS, is her best character to date. Whenever he’s on the page, the reader sees a smart, funny, kind, attractive man — not an invalid — and yet we’re painfully aware of the toll his illness takes on the blended family that loves him. And really, who doesn’t want to read a novel with the opening line, “I’m a good liar”?
Faultlines by Barbara Taylor Sissel
Hot off the press, here’s a compelling novel about a closely-knit, extended family who is ripped apart after the phone call every parent dreads: “There’s been an accident.” As two cousins are airlifted out of their rural Texas community, with serious injuries from a single car wreck, family tensions split wide-open. A family drama at its best, the novel touches on underage drinking, betrayal, obsession, and the blood ties that bind.
When You Were Older by Catherine Ryan Hyde
On September 11, 2001, Russell was heading to work in the World Trade Center when he got the call that saved — but upended — his life: His mother was dead, and he had to return to small town nowheresville to take care of his brain-damaged older brother. The novel pulls at every heartstring. Yes, it’s a 9/11 story told through the eyes and emotions of a survivor — one of only two from his advertising agency — but it’s also a story about love and survival in one spectacularly messed-up family.
How to Grow an Addict by J.A. Wright
I fell for Randall Grange in the first line: “I still can’t figure it out. How the therapist persuaded me to stay in rehab.” And then we go back in time to see how she becomes an addict by age 15. Randall’s story isn’t sugar-coated, and her voice is strong and often hilarious. Even in her darkest moments as an addict, I cared about her welfare. A terrific read on a difficult subject.
Summer at Hideaway Key by Barbara Davis
Don’t be deceived by the title — this is a tense story of a strained mother-daughter relationship born from 30 years of lies and deception. Filled with family secrets, sibling rivalry, self-sacrifice, and self-discovery, it comes with a gloriously quirky supporting cast. Plus it introduced me to the world of 1950s poor farms, and I love a novel that pushes me to do research at midnight.
Days Made of Glass by Laura Drake
What happens when two young sisters have no one but each other — no support system, no money — and crisis hits? That’s the premise of this gut-wrenching story about the true meaning of family. After Angel spirals into debilitating mental illness, her big sister fights to pay her medical bills by becoming the first female professional bull fighter — something I had zero interest in until I met Harlie Cooper.
The Far End of Happy by Kathryn Craft
A novel grounded in truth torn from the author’s life, this is a haunting story about a suicide standoff with police — a family crisis that drags in two small boys and plays out in public. Even though the final outcome is obvious, the author takes her readers through 10 gripping hours. I read it with a pounding heart and an admiration for the strong female characters who put children’s needs first.
Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer
A powerful debut about making impossible decisions to protect loved ones, Five Days Left is raw, realistic, heartbreaking, and uplifting. It doesn’t withhold emotional punches, but it never veers into melodrama. The story goes deep into the world of adoption, foster care, addiction, and terminal disease to examine what makes a good parent.
The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley
This story revolves around controversial moral and ethical issues and a family divided by an impossible choice. After astronaut Elle Beaulieu is left brain-dead by a tragic accident, her family must decide whether or not to keep her on life-support until her unborn baby reaches full-term. It’s a unique blend of medical drama, courtroom drama, and love story. Tissues are mandatory.
Accidents of Marriage by Randy Susan Meyers
This thought-provoking page-turner takes readers into the psyche of a family about to snap under the pressure of emotional abuse. However, nothing in the novel is black and white, and the shifting points of view reveal three sides to one story. I’ll admit it: I even felt sympathy for the husband I wanted to hate.
Fractured by Catherine McKenzie
Coming October 4 — believe the buzz! A psychological drama with a celebrity stalker at its core, Fractured is about family interactions in one very dysfunctional neighborhood. The tension is palpable, and there are many twists and turns. I’m still reeling from the horror of the no-alcohol rule at the block parties.
The Education of Dixie Dupree by Donna Everhart
Coming October 25, this Indie Next Pick is a difficult read at times — there’s one scene in particular that I struggled with — but I applaud the author for tackling the darkest, most heinous corner of family life: the sexual abuse of a child. The novel brims with Southern charm and introduces the captivating voice of 11-year-old Ms. Dixie Dupree. Read it for her. She has a story that begs to be heard.
Which of these books do you plan to read? Share in the comments!
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