My Top 8 Picks to Read For a Different Take On Dysfunctional Family Life

There is a dark side to human nature that we have to continue to fight. We can preach all about love — love thy neighbour, do unto others — but people just do the most horrible things. Of course, for an author, conflict is our meat and potatoes and in terms of my writing, I have always been very much interested in exploring family dynamics in my novels; the relationship of parents to children, especially fathers, and how love disintegrates in family dynamics. That’s really the subject of most of my books. Below are some of the books that have had a lasting impact on my own work and I encourage you to add them to your reading lists this year:

8. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann


This dense and wonderful novel by the great German author traces the generational saga of a mercantile family and its eventual degeneration into dysfunction by greed and the unwillingness of its members to transfer the ambition of its founders to future generations. It has the feel of a traditional story of rags to riches which turns to eventual disintegration when values cannot be sustained as they come up against cultural crosscurrents and clashing motives.

7. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever


This novel’s family dysfunction is caused by the clash between pious and bourgeois respectability and the mores of a new and vigorously changing America and the inner drives of small-town New England stock. This once hearty strain of people in Cheever’s world have a tough time coping as their predictable behavior is upended by new hazards, conflicts and attitudes and results in inevitable problems of family dysfunction.

6. East of Eden by John Steinbeck


A broken home in one generation powerfully impacts the next one in this novel of ambition and abandonment in California around the turn of the century. Steinbeck captures how the dysfunction grows and matures when parents turn on each other and leave the rearing of children to a single parent who has little understanding of the needs of his offspring. Adapted into an award-winning movie, the novel brings to life the heartbreak and confusion that germinates when separation and jealousy changes a once hopeful relationship and destroys the very meaning of family life.

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” are the opening lines of this tour de force novel by Tolstoy. Anna, a woman in desperate need of attention and love and deprived of it in her marriage to an indifferent husband, seeks to find it elsewhere. Seeking refuge in an adulterous relation, she loses everything and in despair commits suicide.

4. Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert


The classic story of a woman who, to escape a humdrum life, marries a doctor only to discover that the doctor bores her and cannot give her the love she craves. She enters into an adulterous liaison with a faithless lover who leads her down a path of marital dysfunction and eventual despair.

3. American Pastoral by Philip Roth


The dysfunction in this American Jewish family from New Jersey is framed by the Vietnam War when a once happy family who literally has everything discover that their daughter, a war protester, has participated in a fatal bombing as part of a protest against the war. The daughter disappears to evade the authorities, leaving the family in a state of perpetual unhappiness and dysfunction.

2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson


This powerful suspenseful trilogy deals with three dysfunctional families. A prominent and wealthy Swedish family with destructive secrets and perversions, an equally perverse and horrible father-daughter relationship and a somewhat more benign but equally dysfunctional family of the hero-journalist of these stories. When it comes to dysfunctional families, this series is an embarrassment of riches in terms of revealing the causes and variety of dysfunction in families.

1. The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing


A happy and contented family, a nourishing mother, a devoted father and four happy children full of love and happiness look forward to the same expectations when they have their fifth child. This is not to be. The fifth child is a monster. Ugly, unforgiving, hateful and mean-minded, he brings this once protected family into a state of dysfunction and despair.