You Love a Family Saga
It’s Family Saga Week — long-held secrets, multiple perspectives and complex dynamics! Oh my!
Hi book lovers,
Before I dive in: A quick reminder that Friday is the last day to let me know you’re participating in the paperback swap. Thanks to everyone who already signed up!
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me this tweet:
I love a family saga, with long-held secrets, complex relationships and interconnected plots that ideally all come to a head at some sort of third-act event.
So, with that in mind, I’ve declared it Family Saga Week here at What To Read If. I’m spotlighting three books that each put their own spin on the beloved genre.
So, now, what to read if …
You Want Something Sweeping
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
Black Cake is the platonic ideal of a family saga described by Matt Goldsmith in that tweet. It spans continents and decades, features multiple narrators (including one from beyond the grave!) and a moving exploration of what we inherit from our families — literally or metaphorically.
As the book begins, estranged siblings Byron and Benny are meeting with their recently deceased mother’s lawyer to settle her estate. They learn she’s left them a black cake made from a beloved family recipe and a voice recording. Through the hours-long tape, they learn that nearly everything they knew about their mother, Eleanor, was a lie. Alternating between chapters describing Eleanor’s life in the past and Byron and Benny in the present day, Wilkerson shows how long-ago events have repercussions for generations.
Full disclosure: Black Cake was super controversial at my recent book club. I loved it, it was on a bunch of best of 2022 lists and Oprah is adapting it for Hulu. But some members of my book club thought it was over-hyped and overstuffed. If you’ve read it, let me know where you come down on the debate.
Reminder recs: Some previous family sagas with multiple narrators include favorites include Red at the Bone, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina and The Five Wounds.
You Want Something True
Ancestor Trouble by Maud Newton
In Ancestor Trouble, Maud Newton blends her own family history and personal obsession with genealogy with reporting on epigenetics, the role of sites like 23 & Me in crime solving and how genealogy transformed from a niche hobby to a billion-dollar industry. It’s nonfiction, so it’s not a traditional family saga, but it shares a lot of, ahem, DNA with the genre.
Newton first started looking into her family history to answer that fundamental question: Who am I? Her estranged father was obsessed with the “purity” of his bloodline, to the point where he used Wite-Out to paint over the faces of Black characters in children’s books. Her mother — who started a church out of the family’s home and once owned thirty cats — didn’t believe Newton when she said her stepfather molested her. Maud had heard for years about how mental illness plagued both sides of the family. Genealogy, she thought, might offer a way to understand if she was doomed to repeat her family’s history.
It's a fascinating read that offers colorful anecdotes of Newton’s ancestors — a grandfather was married ten times to nine women — as well as distressing findings about her family’s role in enslaving people and running an exceptionally exploitative sharecropping farm. Newton ultimately concludes that her genes shape — but do not define — her as she attempts to reconcile her family’s past with the future she wants.
You Want Something Quirky
Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett
Unlikely Animals is a classic homecoming story — former golden girl, Emma, returns to her small town after dropping out of medical school — with a twist. It’s narrated by the residents of her town’s cemetery. Emma’s return, they explain early in the novel, “was a source of entertainment at Maple Street Cemetery. Both funny and sad, the kind of story we like best.”
When Emma returned to Everton, New Hampshire, she knew she’d have to confront her father Clive’s deadly brain disease, her mother’s disappointment in her and her brother’s attempts to heal from opioid addiction. She is shocked to learn her high school best friend has gone missing and no one but Clive — who regularly hallucinates small animals — is taking the disappearance seriously. Lost, confused and overwhelmed, Emma takes a job as a substitute teacher. Together with her students and the ghost of a naturalist visiting her father, Emma and her dad begin to heal strained family bonds and a town struggling with the opioid crisis.
Unlikely Animals reminded me a bit of Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts, one of my favorites of 2022, except with actual ghosts instead of metaphorical ones. It’s one of those books that left me feeling far warmer and more hopeful than I would have guessed based on its subject matter. It’s a story of resiliency and our ability to grow and heal even when it seems impossible.
I’m excited to have a guest recommendation from my pal Mel Joulwan today. Mel is one of the co-hosts of the fabulous Strong Sense of Place podcast, which starts its newest season today with an episode about Spain. I’m a huge fan of the show — each episode focuses on what makes a place unique and books that transport us there — and am super excited to listen to the new season. I asked Mel if she had a favorite family saga and she kindly shared two:
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory is set in Chicago from the 1960s through the 1990s and follows the misadventures of an unusual family. The parents met at a Cold War-era experiment about psychic powers, and their children display paranormal abilities. They're all on their way to fame and fortune as The Amazing Telemachus Family when tragedy strikes. The family splinters until a series of unusual circumstances bring them back together. The story — a surprising but effective combo of madcap caper and emotional wallops — weaves magic tricks, shootouts, touches of romance, and second (third and fourth) chances into a page-turning novel. When the cinematic climax arrives, it catches all the balls in the air in one graceful swoop.
Diametrically opposed to that story, but equally compelling, is Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver, a Gothic coming-of-age story set in an Edwardian mansion on the edge of a wild fen. Our heroine Maud — feisty, put-upon, and about seven shades too curious — lives with her father, her two brothers, and a gaggle of servants in Wake's End. One day while poking around her father's library, she finds his private diaries and learns more than she should about her family's unsettling history. There's witchcraft and demonology, a Hieronymus Bosch-esque painting, the folklore of the fens, and various hauntings of both a ghostly and emotional nature.
Here’s another link to sign up for the book swap. I’ll be back on Thursday with a Q&A featuring Margot Douaihy, author of the upcoming Scorched Grace, a mystery starring a chain-smoking queer nun.
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Black Cake is so good! So rich, so unexpected, so compelling. I loved it. I also hadn't seen the hype before I read it, so maybe that helped, but I think it's just excellent.
Thank you so much for reading and recommending Ancestor Trouble!