I always find it interesting to know why a person reads. Is she reading for information, enlightenment or escape? Generally speaking, I read in order to make sense or to make meaning. While I am often nothing like the characters about which I read, they teach me or help me understand something in a new way. Walking around in another character’s head for a while helps me develop greater empathy for my fellow humans. It may even help me be kinder to myself. I think this why I so frequently read books about families.
Relationships among siblings, parents, spouses, and children create a limitless supply of material for writers. I particularly enjoy books that explore the family as a system—an interconnected unit with rules and roles that can become strained, reinforced, or broken when distress occurs. Families are universal institutions, and tragedy is a universal experience, but how families respond to tragedy is anything but universal. Joan Didion’s haunting memoir of grief The Year of Magical Thinking opens with the line “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Life can change drastically in a moment. Several novels explore how families respond to tragic events. These are just a few of my favorites:
Carry the One
In this brilliant new novel by Carol Anshaw, a tragic car accident marks the lives and relationships of siblings Carmen, Alice, and Nick. These characters are so richly drawn and their responses to tragedy so developed and authentic that at the end of the novel you feel as though you have journeyed with them for a season. This is a heartbreaking, compassionate, and haunting novel.
We Were the Mulvaneys
I love the title of this Joyce Carol Oates novel, which implies that there will be a “before” and “after” incident in the plot; the opening chapter has a “once upon a time” feeling to it. The Mulvaneys were the type of family to which everyone wants to belong—strong, affluent, loving, healthy, attractive. But when the only daughter is sexually assaulted, everything changes.
No one writes dread better than Ian McEwan. He perfectly creates that palpable sense of anxiety, discomfort, and fear of encroaching tragedy. In Atonement, a 13-year-old girl’s false accusation irrevocably changes the characters lives.