Secrets and dysfunctional families are the perfect ingredients for some of Jason Allen’s favorite novels. Read on to discover Allen’s favorite tension and conflicts that fuels the narratives in these Top 7 Books with Family Secrets.
Secrecy makes for a riveting story, and family secrets often inform the tension and energy of some of my favorite literary works. It’s one thing to keep secrets from the general public, or from acquaintances, or even close friends, but to conceal our innermost truths from family is to deny a fundamental truth of ourselves. The mask characters wear at home skews the image they see in the mirror. Perhaps a reader notices that their daydreams are in conflict with the words in dialogue. Or the character shows a pressing need to create an alternate reality in order to cope with the real one denied. Maybe these are some of the reasons why I’m drawn to “dysfunctional” families in novels—that core tension and conflict breathes life into their narratives, with secrets and lies often fueling the fire.
Here is a short list of the novels I’ve read featuring complex characters and narratives that are masterfully crafted around lies and family secrecy for a powerful effect:
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides – The narrator of this incredible novel, Cal (AKA Calliope), is victimized from the moment of his/her birth by two massive family secrets:
- Cal was born with both male and female genitalia but is never told this, and thus has suffered throughout adolescence until this first huge truth is revealed.
- Cal’s grandparents were closely related and passed on the hermaphroditic gene when they married, and no one in Cal’s family knows this (though we readers do).
Cal’s journey of self-discovery is epic and fascinating, and all rooted in these two central family secrets. The painful process of self-realization Cal goes through is one we can connect with universally, even if the details of our lives are drastically different, because the process of self-acceptance and identity formation that takes place for us all in our younger years, it seems, is by and large rooted in pain. Cal’s journey just happens to be remarkably intense, and this brilliant novel opened me up to a deeply felt empathy.
The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson – The Fangs are an insanely funny family to follow, and all of them connect with one another solely when they collaborate on elaborate lies. The kids, Buster and Annie, have grown up as part of an extreme familial acting (or pranking) troupe. Their performance art “situations” where each of the four family members plays a role to fool people in public, are both a source of pride and one of exasperation for the kids, who, once they are adults and trying to muddle through their own dysfunctional lives, are mortified by their parents. Wilson brings so much comedy to a fairly tragic situation, as Buster and Annie try to keep as much of their parents and their past performances a secret from love interests and everyone else in their lives.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Jay Gatsby himself is a compelling figure because his background is one massive mystery, a mystery that the narrator, Nick Carraway, feels compelled to explain to us after he’s discovered how shrouded in secrecy Gatsby has been since his arrival in East Egg. If Gatsby hadn’t lied his way to his position and held so tightly to his alter-ego persona, if we knew much of anything related to his family history prior to the big reveals, this classic novel may not have kept people interested for almost 100 years.
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng – When this impressive debut novel opens, we find out that 16-year-old Lydia is dead. The rest of the story is a kaleidoscopic loop from past to present that all boils down to the fact that both Lydia’s parents and two siblings have been keeping all their most intimate and important thoughts, desires, and information about Lydia a secret from the rest of the family, and that they always have. For this novel, the family’s secrecy is right there in the title—and it’s the reason we want to read to the end.
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham – This novel spans three generations that are all connected by Virginia Woolf and her novel, Mrs. Dalloway; each of the three temporal shifts focuses on a storyline rooted in deeply held, painful secrets, including the tragic secrecy surrounding Virginia Woolf’s clinical depression, which eventually led her to walk into a body of water with rocks in her pockets. Michael Cunningham does something so intriguing as he explores how secrecy and lies passed down over the generations can snowball to disastrous effect.
The Tenth Girl, by Sara Faring (forthcoming, Imprint/Macmillan, Sept. 2019) – This haunting, gothic, spooky, lushly narrated novel is one that I was recently lucky to read in an advanced copy format and one I absolutely adore. It takes place at the tip of Argentina in a haunted all-girl prep school. The owner and headmistress has a fabled and mysterious family legacy; the nineteen-year-old protagonist also feels the need to keep her own family history of political dissidence, as well as her age, a secret when she shows up to teach at the school. If you like gorgeous prose and magical elements in ghost-inhabited fiction, this is one to pre-order immediately—it’s so good.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr – While most people know this novel as a WWII epic, I see the storyline between six-year-old Marie-Laure, one of the two young protagonists, and her father, as a profound statement of love that evolves for the reader as the father lies and keeps secrets from his daughter. He not only trains her to see once she is completely blind—similar to how Roberto Benigni’s character does for the child in the film Life is Beautiful—he distracts Marie-Laure from the impending German invasion with sublime and intricately fabricated details of the world he wishes his daughter could continue to inhabit. Life for Marie-Laure, he knows, is hard enough without her having to sit in constant panic prior to their inevitable flight from their home. This novel is panoptic and multifaceted (it even includes fake precious gems, decoys away from the one true treasure), and is fraught with secrecy and lies that are spawned from a wide spectrum of motivations, not the least of which is love.