As Tolstoy aptly put it in the opening lines of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Within family law, the same is often the case – every client we represent and assist requires a bespoke approach to their case and needs. Families and family life is complicated and has been the subject of great novels since pen was put to paper, so in this article I wanted to set out some of the best books I have read which explore the topic of “family” in their own different ways.
We would love to hear your thoughts, and whether there are any books you think we have missed?
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
First published between 1873 and 1877, and often considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written, the novel centres around the extramarital affair between Anna and a cavalry officer, Count Vronsky which scandalises the social circles the pair live in. The novel explores many themes relating to the complication of family and marriage life, with many of the central characters thinking they will have more freedom if they reject all the conventions of family life; choices which ironically result in the opposite.
Best Quote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
Everyone knows or has heard of the film, but the original novel by Puzo has one of the most fascinating and complex families in literature. The Corleone family is embroiled in a major mob war with the Five Families of the New York Mafia, and the book examines the relationships between the head of the family, Don Corleone, and his three sons, but the theme of family is not restricted to blood relationships; being a member of the Corleone family extends to those in their employment, protection or control.
Best Quote: “Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.”
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
Haunting, dark and brutal; the novel explores a mother trying to come to terms with her son, Kevin, who carries out a mass shooting at his high school leading to the murder of several of his classmates. At the heart of the novel it explores the question of whether a mother’s love truly has no bounds, and it makes for a fascinating if not gut-wrenching read.
Best Quote: “Had I catalogued the downsides of parenthood, “son might turn out to be a killer” would never have turned up on the list.”
Wild Swans, by Jung Chang
The first non-fiction novel on our list, Wild Swans tells the story of three generations of the women in a Chinese family as they go through the incredible changes China faced through the 20th century. From being ruled by emperors, the Japanese, to the Russians and finally Mao’s ruthless communist regime, Chang tells the story of her grandmother, mother and herself, and the often devastating impact on their family throughout this time.
Best Quote: “Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.”
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
Count Rostov, an eccentric aristocrat, is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in central Moscow, charged with being a social parasite in post-revolution Russia. So starts an uplifting, often hilarious novel in which Rostov tells his tale. Over the course of the novel, the hotel staff becomes Rostov’s de facto family and he even becomes a surrogate father. As Russia undergoes changes, the world inside the Metropol is almost cocooned and protected and by the end Rostov’s house arrest comes to be the best thing that could have happened for him.
Best Quote: “If you are ever in doubt, just remember that unlike adults, children want to be happy. So they still have the ability to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest things.”
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart
The winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, Shuggie Bain tells the story of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, who grows up in Glasgow during the 1980s with his alcoholic mother and absent father. This was a harrowing story about the love Shuggie has for his mother, despite her shortcomings, and he continued quest to “cure” her of her problems. The novel explores themes about family, violence, sexuality and loyalty between parents and their children.
Best Quote: “She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.”
Mother’s Milk, by Edward St Aubyn
The fourth book in St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, Mother’s Milk follows Patrick, now in his 40s, dealing with the anxieties he faces about repeating the mistakes his own parents made, whilst exploring the relationship between Patrick and his mother Eleanor who is now suffering from Alzheimer’s. The novel explores what it means to feel “stuck” in family life and being consumed by children and their needs taking precedent. A dissection of child-rearing, marriage, adultery and the relationship between mother and son; the book lifts the veil behind Patrick’s blank smile as he attempts to come to terms with where he is in life.
Best Quote: “So much road and so few places, so much friendliness and so little intimacy, so much flavour and so little taste.”
Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt
The book’s title has become synonymous with one thing – misery. The struggles of growing up poor and catholic in Ireland during the first half of the 20th century, McCourt tells his family’s story in this Pulitzer Prize winning memoir. A story written without bitterness, despite the often awful and tragic events that the author went through. Woven throughout is a story about brothers, a mother attempting to provide for her children despite abject poverty and a father neglecting them due to his alcoholism.
Best Quote: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
One of the longest novels ever written, A Suitable Boy follows four families over the course of 18 months, focussing on Mrs Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her youngest daughter to a “suitable boy”. A colourful backdrop set in India in the 1950s, the books explores many themes including family relationships, and is primarily a book about people and their relationships with others.
Best Quote: “Man without life companion is either god or beast.”
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Probably not what you expected from a list of books exploring the concept of families, but Shelley’s 1818 classic gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein, expresses themes and concepts relating to family intimacy and the politics of relationships, including the effect that alienation has on those excluded from family structures. Frankenstein’s monster is rejected by his creator, his de-facto father, and this rejection culminates in loneliness and eventually the desire for revenge. All in all, the novel explores the importance of family ties to an individual’s life, and leaves the reader considering whether the monstrous side of Frankenstein’s creation was actually due to Frankenstein rejecting his son/creation.
Best Quote: “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.”