Ten Close Families in Literature ‹ CrimeReads
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the identity people derive from their family, good or bad, by being part of a “gang.” The idea that for some people being part of a large family protects them from the real world. I remember an interview with one of my favorite novelists, Kate Atkinson, who was often stunned to be told by adults: you are an only child, you must be spoiled. She thought of the houses she went to where children fought and smashed each other’s toys, the constant, multi-layered land wars of siblings and she would come home and quietly play with her toys intact and think: but no of this is spoiled – I am not spoiled.
I was once with an old friend who is one of four, whose family lives in one of those big houses where everyone, young and old, gets together. We ran into an acquaintance who eagerly asked for her parents. My friend answered, but she only talked about them, her siblings and the house. She didn’t ask a single question in return. His family was the mythical one, they didn’t need to be interested in the life of the applicant. It wasn’t rudeness, it was utter recklessness, and the other person gobbled it up. But then I saw how corrosive this blind vision can be. I’m part of a big family and I love it, but many of my favorite people, from my dad to my closest friends, were just kids, whom I often found to be more hardy and curious and accepting and interested in all people from all walks of life.
In my new novel, beloved daughters, I wanted to write about those families that make us feel envious, or less than us. Golden, mysterious and glamorous families that function as a pack and seem to have it all. But just as “having it all” is the biggest cliché in modern fiction, so is the idea of the happy, united family – and yet it’s one that women have learned to chase all their lives. Here are ten of my favorite close families in literature, and they’re my favorites because it’s often their closeness that threatens to tear them apart.
The Little House on the Prairie, etc.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
I ran through the Little House series last year, and for an Englishwoman who’s never been closer to the plains of Dakota than repeat viewings of Calamity Jane, they’ve been an eye-opener on how the America started. For the Ingalls family, sticking together isn’t about loyalty, it’s about survival. (Lily The long winter next time you complain about wifi speed. Your life is not so bad). There is a disturbing lack of choice here, and Laura and her sisters have to obey Papa, but we know that Laura sees how bad the treatment of American Indians is. In a time of survival, Pa Wilder takes what he wants. They are bonded, but what really brings them together is Laura’s mother, who works tirelessly to make their wooden cabin comfortable and special, to surround the family with love and warmth, even when the heat is hard to find.
Where you find close family when yours is fractured and reshaped into something new is one of the themes of Patchett’s beautiful, human, and uncomfortable novel. The Keatings and Cousins children are thrown together when Bert Cousins kisses Beverly Keating at his youngest daughter’s christening party in 1960s California – we follow the inevitable damage done to the six children as during for the next fifty years, they shuttle between their parents on the East and West Coast. It’s not just one family unit, it’s two, three different families, but the closeness, functionality and maturity displayed by the half-siblings are delightfully and lovingly drawn. I finished this book with tears flowing freely down my cheeks. He will always stay with me.
The iron Throne
George RR Martin
What’s so great about The iron Throne, the first installment in George RR Martin’s sprawling, two-foot-long eponymous saga (where’s the rest, George?) Is it all about family dynamics; he’s a man who understands that, dragons, zombies, and witches aside, what we love are feuds, murders, love, and bonds tested. It’s quite gripping. No spoilers (!) but we see that the families that thrive, despite everything, are those who are entitled to their own identity within the family dynamic, like the Starks. The Lannisters and Targaryens, on the other hand, are also close, but not in a good way. I won’t say more.
“I had been there before; I knew all about it’. The ultimate golden family romance where everything isn’t quite as it should be, it’s impossible to put down Brideshead not drawn into its dark, shimmering circle, with Oxford and the young men in cricketing white and all the cliches of English country house, but at its heart, the dysfunction and fossilization of the upper classes. Very few have done so. The Flyte family is slowly dying, their closeness and need to serve title and succession suffocating each member of the family in different ways.
The Wuthering Heights
I couldn’t leave out Wuthering Heights because as a teenager I studied it for my school exams, I had a family tree of the Earnshaws and the Lintons and it was worryingly rare because everyone marry everyone. W.H. that’s what happens when you live in a remote village and only know one other family. Reading it again last year, I thought of it as a metaphor for confinement. Too much socializing with your own makes you hate them all, as well as yourself. But passion! The emotion! Even trying to re-read it now exhausts me. Feelings!
Louisa May Alcott
Every budding writer should read Little Women, understanding that character complexity is essential to any story. Jo March is one of the great heroines of literature, but she is imperfect, impetuous, chaotic. Beth (Beth!) is cripplingly shy. Meg is materialistic. Amy is vain. The March sisters might be too sweet but they never are. (Because of this, I could never get along with Anne of Green Gables, which makes me cringe. I’m so sorry). But we believe in it all the more because of these flaws. We believe them, and we love them all the more for it.
Pride and Prejudice
Of course, the Bennet sisters are close. Of course, Mrs. Bennet is a nightmare. But who, reading P&P for the umpteenth time, can’t feel sympathy for her, struggling with five marriageable girls and a husband who openly mocks her and sees everything as a joke? The older I get, the more I feel for Mrs Bennet, who has raised five children, only one of whom is a bad apple. She gave birth to one of literature’s greatest heroines, Lizzy Bennet, remember, who is genetically 50% her own. There is good in it.
What do people do all day?
“I’m not interested in creating a book that is read once and then put on a shelf and forgotten.” That’s the quote I have above my desk. Richard Scarry’s delicate, cheerful and neat work of Busytown and Endless Humanity which sees female animals in jobs, animals of all kinds happily co-existing and, at its center, the Cat family, with Huckle Cat and his friend Lowly Worm who lives with the Cat family, happily accepted and loved with the other children. I adored these books as a child, and in re-reading them to my own children, I appreciate even more the careful and caring world-building that allows families and children to simply be, as long as they are good community members, that is.
Half of a yellow sun
Chiminanda Ngozi Adiche
It’s a book that stays with you forever. Kainene and Olanna are twins in 1960s Nigeria. Against the Biafran War, it follows the rapid and changing changes that war brings to the family, and the lengths people will go to protect those they love – something that, in recent times, we haven’t had. only too clearly seen. Closeness here isn’t a family home, it’s about mutual respect and understanding, as the basis of love, and what the sisters go through – and do to each other – tests that up. to the limits.
I capture the castle
One of my favorite books, often described as a sweet coming-of-age story, but actually much stranger than that. The Mortmains are close because of the curious poverty that plagued upper-class English families in the 1920s and 30s where you live in a huge house and have servants but don’t have enough to eat. (See also: ballet slippers). The climax of the book, of course, is Cassandra, the formidable heroine, taking charge not of her own life, for she is powerless against love, driven mad by love, but fate and the potential income of his father. It’s a wonderful commentary on creativity and a sly, pointed rebuttal to all hard-working writers (including me).