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Ten Close Families in Literature


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Since I was a young child I’ve been fascinated by the identity people get from their families, good and bad, being part of a ‘gang’.  The idea that for some people being in a large family gives them protection from the real world. I remember an interview with one of my favorite novelists, Kate Atkinson, who was frequently bemused at being told by adults: you’re an only child, you must be spoilt. She’d think about the houses she’d go to where the children fought and smashed each other’s toys, the constant, multi-layered land wars of siblings and she’d go home and calmly play with her unbroken toys and think: but none of this is spoilt—I’m not the spoilt one.

I was once with an old friend who is one of four, whose family lives in one of those large houses where everyone, young and old, would congregate. We bumped into an acquaintance who asked, eagerly, after her parents. My friend answered, but she talked only about them, her siblings, and the house. She didn’t ask a single question back. Her family was the mythical one, she didn’t need to express interest in the asker’s life. It wasn’t rudeness, it was total obliviousness, and the other person lapped it up. But I saw then how corrosive that blinkered view can be. I’m part of a big family and love it, but many of my favorite people, from my dad to my closest friends, were only children, who I’ve found are often more robust and curious and accepting and interested in all people from all walks of life.

In my new novel, The Beloved Girls, I wanted to write about those families that make us feel envious, or less than we are. Golden, mysterious, glamorous families who operate 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 especially women are taught to chase our whole 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 pull them apart.

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Little House on the Prairie, etc
Laura Ingalls Wilder

I raced through the Little House series last year, and for an Englishwoman who has never been closer to the plains of Dakota than repeated viewings of Calamity Jane they were a revelation about how America began. For the Ingalls family sticking together isn’t about loyalty – it’s about survival. (Read The Long Winter  next time you’re complaining about wifi speeds. Your life is not so bad). There’s an absence of choice there which is disquieting, and Laura and her sisters must obey Pa,  yet we know Laura sees how wrong the treatment of the American Indians is. In a time of survival Pa Wilder takes what he wants. They are bound together, but what makes them actually close is Laura’s mother, who works endlessly to make their wooden shack cosy, and special, to surround the family with love and warmth, even when warmth is hard to come by.

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Commonwealth
Ann Patchett

Where you find close family when yours is fractured and remoulded into something new is one of the themes of Patchett’s beautiful, humane, and uncomfortable novel. The Keatings and the Cousins children are thrown together when Bert Cousins kisses Beverly Keating at her youngest daughter’s christening party in 1960s California – we follow the inevitable damage wrought on the six children as, over the next fifty years, they shuttle between their parents on the East and West Coast. This is not a single unit of family, it’s two, three different families, but the closeness and functionality and maturity on display shown by the step-siblings is exquisitely and tenderly drawn. I finished this book with tears rolling freely down my cheeks. It will stay with me always.

A Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
George RR Martin

What’s so great about Game of Thrones, the first installment in George RR Martin’s eponymous, sprawling, two-foot-long saga (where’s the rest of it, George?) is how it’s essentially about family dynamics; this is a man who understands that, dragons and zombies and witches aside, what we like are feuds, and murders, and love, and bonds being tested. It’s utterly gripping. No spoilers (!) but we see that the families who thrive, despite everything, are the ones who are allowed their own identities within the family dynamic, like the Starks. The Lannisters and Targaryens, on the other hand, are also close, but not in the right way. I’ll say no more.

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Brideshead Revisited
Evelyn Waugh

‘I had been there before; I knew all about it’. The ultimate novel of the golden family where all is not really as it should be, it is impossible to pick up Brideshead without being drawn into its dark, glittering circle, with Oxford and young men in cricket whites and all the English country house clichés, but at its heart, the dysfunction and fossilisation of the upper classes. Very few have done it as well. The Flyte family is slowly dying, its closeness and need to service the title and estate suffocating each family member in different ways.

Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë

I couldn’t leave Wuthering Heights out, because as a teenager studying it for my school exams I had a family tree of the Earnshaws and Lintons and it was worryingly sparse as everyone marries everyone. WH is what happens when you live in a remote village and only know one other family. Rereading it last year, I thought of it as a metaphor for lockdown. Too much socialising with your own kind makes you hate them all—and yourself. But the passion! The emotion! Even trying to reread it now exhausts me. Feelings!

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Little Women
Louisa May Alcott

Every aspiring writer should be made to read Little Women, to understand that complexity of character is essential to any story. Jo March is one of the great heroines of literature but she’s flawed—impetuous, chaotic. Beth (Beth!) is paralysingly shy. Meg is materialistic. Amy is vain. The March sisters could be too sickly sweet but they never are. (For this reason I never could get on with Anne of Green Gables, who makes my teeth grind. I’m so sorry). But we believe in them all the more because of these flaws. We believe them, and we love them all the more for it.

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Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen

Of course the Bennet sisters are close. Of course Mrs Bennet is a nightmare. But who, rereading P&P for the umpteenth time, cannot feel sympathy for her, saddled with five daughters to marry off 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 which is a bad apple. She gave birth to one of literature’s greatest heroines, Lizzy Bennet, remember, who is genetically 50% hers. There’s some good in her.

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What Do People Do All Day?
Richard Scarry

‘I’m not interested in creating a book that is read once and then placed on the shelf and forgotten’. This is the quote I have above my desk. The delicate, cheery, careful artwork of Busytown and Richard Scarry’s endless humanity which sees female animals in jobs, animals of all kinds happily co-existing and, as its centre 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 loved these books as a child and, rereading them to my own children, appreciate even more the careful, kind world-building that allows families, and children, to simply be, as long as they are good members of the community, that is.

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Half of a Yellow Sun
Chiminanda Ngozi Adiche

This is a book that stays with you always. Kainene and Olanna are twins, in 1960s Nigeria. Set against the Biafran War, it follows the shifting, rapid changes that war brings to family, and the lengths people will go to to protect those they love – something that, lately, we have seen all too clearly. Closeness here isn’t about a family home, it is about mutual respect and understanding, as a basis for love, and what the sisters go through—and do to each other—tests that, to the very limits.

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I Capture the Castle
Dodie Smith

One of my favorite books, often written off as a sweet coming-of-age story, but in fact much stranger than that. The Mortmains are close because of the curious poverty affecting upper-class English families in the 20s and 30s where you live in a vast house and have servants but don’t have enough food to eat. (See also: Ballet Shoes). The climax of the book, of course, is Cassandra, the tremendous heroine, taking charge, not of her own life, for she is helpless with love, driven mad with it, but of her father’s destiny and income potential. It’s a marvelous comment on creativity and a sly, sharp rebuttal to all workshy writers (including me).

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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