Literary Families of Note
January 15, 2009 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Literary works that explore traditional and nontraditional (American) families?

I teach at a university, and I am planning to propose a course for next year on the subject of traditional and non-traditional families in literature. Essentially what I'd like to explore are the ways in which literature can make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar - the ways in which apparently traditional families are shown to be anything but, and the ways in which nontraditional literary families are often actually rather traditional.

I'd like to cast as wide a net as possible in searching for appropriate texts for the course. I've already thought of a bunch, but I'm sure there are more I'm not thinking of. I'm looking for American novels, short stories, and memoirs, and "traditional" and "nontraditional" can be interpreted as broadly as you want. Obviously, themes such as marriage, divorce, single-parenthood, adoption, and homosexuality probably need to be present.

Here are some examples (works I've already thought of):
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
"Fiesta, 1980" by Junot Diaz
"The Cinderella Waltz" by Ann Beattie

Thanks for the help!
posted by fugitivefromchaingang to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by Daily Alice at 9:53 AM on January 15, 2009

"Empire Falls" by Richard Russo (great book)
"The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Le Guin (fantastic book! And VERY non-traditional families depicted.)
"The Birthday of the World" by Le Guin (same universe the latter, but this time in short stories. I think this one fits your requirements to a T)
posted by Salvor Hardin at 10:00 AM on January 15, 2009

The Corrections, Johnathan Franzen
posted by ewiar at 10:09 AM on January 15, 2009

Virgin Suicides depicts how the Nixonian 70s lifestyle can be grotesquely tragic if the structure is too unforgiving and rigid. The Lisbon family lives on a manicured suburban street where all the neighbors rake their yards and the kids play together, but the strict Catholic mother slowly shuts off her teenage daughters from boys, sex, and pop culture. The story is told by the boys across the street, who are basically a Greek chorus with suburbanized vision. Pretty great.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:14 AM on January 15, 2009

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine.
posted by rtha at 10:17 AM on January 15, 2009

All of John Irving's novels (pretty much) are about big, sprawling, dysfunctional, and at times incestual families.
posted by billysumday at 10:18 AM on January 15, 2009

Perhaps too untraditional, but I would say that John Irving's Cider House Rules portrays an untraditional father/son relationship, with Dr. Larch as the father and Homer as the son.

Also Irving's The World According to Garp could be argued as having a very untraditional family: Garp, his mother, and Roberta Muldoon.

In both of these, "family" is not defined as blood relations or adoption, but by familial emotions and feelings. Too untraditional?
posted by Houstonian at 10:19 AM on January 15, 2009

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides deals specifically with the themes you seem to be wanting to explore. It is an amazing book and I can not recommend it more.
posted by skewedoracle at 10:26 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon
Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex
Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys
posted by zoomorphic at 10:28 AM on January 15, 2009

I was also going to recommend Middlesex. So, instead - I'll just second it. Maybe Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
posted by quodlibet at 10:33 AM on January 15, 2009

apparently traditional families are shown to be anything but

As I Lay Dying. It shows how a 'typical' southern family is truly, truly messed up.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 10:36 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
I'm going to guess that Infinite Jest may be a little more than what you're looking for here, but fantastic family dynamics are a large part of the novel
Of course there is always The Sound and the Fury
Also strongly seconding The Corrections, Middlesex, and Song of Solomon.

Sounds like a fun class, good luck!
posted by Palmcorder Yajna at 10:41 AM on January 15, 2009

Alison Lurie's The War Between The Tates is essential reading for the sort of course you have in mind. Also Mary McCarthy, Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood (which would make an interesting compare-and-contrast with Christine Rosen, My Fundamentalist Education). I think you could make a good case for Mario Puzo's The Godfather as one of the classic novels of American family life. And John Updike's Couples probably ought to be in there somewhere, even though, as the title suggests, Updike is more interested in couples than families.
posted by verstegan at 11:06 AM on January 15, 2009

The first thing I thought of was 'Geek Love,' although I'm not sure if the somewhat sci-fi aspects would be a killer.
posted by cobaltnine at 11:10 AM on January 15, 2009

Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy. Very non-traditional families.
posted by Acheman at 11:30 AM on January 15, 2009

White Noise by Don DeLillo, and seconding the Xenogenesis trilogy, which is fantastic as well.
posted by Mr Mister at 11:44 AM on January 15, 2009

I was thinking John Irving as well.
posted by Stewriffic at 12:14 PM on January 15, 2009

Oddly, this is the second time this week I've recommended this on AskMe. Look into the Professor's House by Willa Cather.

Its a beautifully written story set in the Midwest and sort of the Southwest in the 1920s. It still feels very modern and has lots of great jumping off points for discussions around families. I can think of topics that include both how an individual family changes over time and how "American Families" have or haven't changed over time.
posted by DarthDuckie at 12:41 PM on January 15, 2009

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively is a rather fantastic book that plays around incest and other things.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:51 PM on January 15, 2009

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson
Prisoners Dilemma by Richard Powers
Russel Banks
posted by OmieWise at 3:52 PM on January 15, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Franny and Zoey by J.D. Salinger (as well as the other Glass family stories -- Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, etc.)
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, but that's just terrible of me, really.
posted by peggynature at 4:35 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, Brideshead is English.

There's also Summer by Edith Wharton.
posted by peggynature at 4:36 PM on January 15, 2009

Dale Peck's memoir What We Lost.

The novels of Chaim Potok are frequently about family, especially Hassidic and orthodox Jews. The Chosen is his best-known novel. But also very much about family is his novel The Book of Lights. Much of the book centers around the relationship of one of the two main characters(both rabbinical students) relationship with his family. His father was a major player in the Manhattan project and his mother, an art historian is revealed to have been partially responsible for the atom bomb not being dropped on Kyoto, which he takes to mean she's responsible for where it did fall. His guilt over what he sees as his parent's sins consumes him. The other character is an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle. As he begins an academic career, a professor emerges as a father figure. Both main characters have brother figures (in the case of the second, his cousin) killed in the Second World War. In a way, I think this is a bit of a stand in for the Holocaust. Of course, God is another father figure very much in the foreground in the story.

I'd forgotten until recently how much of Thomas Merton's The Seven Story Mountain is about his family, his parents, grandparents, and his brother (killed during the Second World War), and the monastic and religious families he found after he was orphaned. Excised from the story by censors is another family, the woman and the child he fathered when he was studying in England between the wars, before his religious conversion.

Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping is recommended above. Her book Gilead is also very much about families.
posted by Jahaza at 4:57 PM on January 15, 2009

Taking a quick look up at my shelves, I see:

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:21 PM on January 15, 2009

Actually, after thinking about it, We Were The Mulvaneys is probably a better Joyce Carol Oates choice. Bellefleur just popped into my head because it is such a strange, sprawling family.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:14 PM on January 15, 2009

Seconding Set This House in Order. I don't want to give anything away, but I think it meets your criteria well.

Susan Palwick's Shelter covers marriage, divorce, adoption and homosexuality (no single parenting that I recall) and is a great book about how people define family.

Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle involves dysfunctional families, Texas-style.

Shelter is science fiction, and Perfect Circle is fantasy, but they're both set in the US and are about American families, and they're both really, really well written.
posted by creepygirl at 6:56 PM on January 15, 2009

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