Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And it’s true: when you see a family squabbling at Disneyland, there are any number of things that could have brought them to that particular moment. An affair? A recent miscarriage? Secret involvement in a drug cartel? A death in the family? An alcoholic older brother? But see a happy family at Disneyland, and your mind goes nowhere. I mean, they’re at Disneyland, and they’re happy. Is there anything less interesting than that? There’s a reason happy families are rarely written about: They’re wildly uninteresting.
Below are 9 tales of dysfunctional families, some true, some fiction, all delicious.
Stories About My Family You Might Relate To
Annabelle Gurwitch’s hysterically funny confessional collection of essays begins with the dysfunctional family she was born into and takes readers on a journey through cycles of self-made families she chooses for herself. ‘Blood is thicker than water’ is not an adage made true by the Gurwitch clan, that’s for certain—for them, blood is something you can hold a grudge against, or blackmail. When Annabelle Gurwitch strikes out on her own, she learns that dysfunction takes root in all sorts of families, even the ones you choose for yourself, but sometimes the dysfunction is actually worth it.
When single mother Julia Alden falls in love with her obstetrician James, she’s ready to finally sink back into domestic bliss, but her daughter isn’t. Gwen hates James, and refuses to accept him as a new part of their household. When Gwen turns to James’s 17-year-old son for comfort, the bond between mother and daughter is tested in ways that Julia never thought it would be.
When Liv and Nora plan a joint-family vacation on a holiday cruise, everyone is thrilled. Their kids revel in the magic of the all-you-can-eat, all-day buffet, and the adults have more than enough entertainment to keep themselves busy. Key to their enjoyment, however, is the bubble that the cruise provides—and that’s gone when they go ashore to explore Central America. The kids disappear, and the parents promptly turn on each other. Left to their own devices, the kids discover coping mechanisms they never knew they had, and the parents discover that foreign countries are perhaps not the best place to let your kids run wild.
When Eloise announces she’s getting married in London, her half-siblings Paul and Alice are less than thrilled. The chance to watch their seemingly perfect half-sister walk down the aisle, something neither of them are likely to get the chance to do in the near future? No thank you. Alice is 30, stuck in a dead-end job, and having a predictable affair with her very married boss. Paul’s live-in track professor boyfriend has been talking smack on monogamy lately, and Paul can’t’ help but notice that he’s also got his eyes on the coeds he teaches. A gathering of the clan, plus their mother’s budding alcoholism, is just what they need.
Jeff and Kim Sanders love their sweet daughter Hannah, who gets good grace and has nice, acceptable friends. Hannah isn’t the all-out bash type, so for her sixteenth birthday, they invite four of her friends over for a sleepover, complete with pizza, cake, and movies. A low-key, sweet affair, just like Hannah. But a horrific tragedy occurs at the party, and in the aftermath, it’s discovered that Hannah may not be as sweet as she seems, and her parents harbor secrets darker than anyone in their neighborhood could imagine.
When the patriarch of an upper-class family passes away, dysfunction and hysteria is sure to ensue. Why? Because when you’re dead, you can no longer keep watch over your secrets. When Rupert Falkes dies, he not only leaves behind a grieving widow and five loyal sons, but also a mistress and two sons she claims are his. When Rupert’s mistress sues his estate, his widow Eleanor takes things in stride, but his five sons are thrown into chaos. They’d always looked up to their father, and thought he was as fiercely loyal to their family as they were—had they been wrong about him? Did they even really know the man who raised them? And why is their mother seemingly unruffled by this revelation? Who are their parents, really?
In House of Names, Colm Toibin retells the story of Clytemnestra, a tale of a dysfunctional family as old as time. A refresher: when Clytemnestra’s husband King Agamemnon sets sail with his army for Troy, Clytemnestra and her new lover Aegisthus are left in charge of Mycenae. Together, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plot to murder Agamemnon upon his return after nine years at war. Toibin doesn’t let us hate Clytemnestra for her actions, though; rather, he takes us through the torment Agamemnon put her through that led her to murder him. Ultimately, the most deliciously dysfunctional families are not caricatures composed of tropes, but ones in which even the villains are characters we sympathize with.
Ronni Sunshine is dying, and she wants her three estranged daughters to come and help her die on her own terms. As a self-involved movie star, Ronni estranged her three daughters as she raised them, and none of them are keen on returning to her, even in her final days. Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy have never been close and couldn’t be more different, but the impending death of their mother forces them to confront each other, and the things they had buried deep within themselves.
Lilian Girvan has been a single mother for three years, and is finally starting to get used to the idea that her husband has passed away and isn’t coming back. She’s had her mental breakdowns, and is feeling steadier now. Her job as a textbook illustrator is interesting and she enjoys the randomness of it—for instance, that vegetable-gardening class her boss signed her up for. The quirky group of gardeners she finds herself immersed in may just become her new family, and she may just end up liking it.