Top 5 dysfunctional families I’d invite home for the holidays

Erin Kodicek on December 24, 2019
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arnett.JPGIn Kristen Arnett’s wry and heartrending debut, a family fractures when its patriarch commits suicide, leaving his flagging taxidermy business behind. Here, Arnett writes about her favorite literary dysfunctional families. If you read Mostly Dead Things, the Morton family will top your list.

Home for the holidays! That’s what they always say, right? I mean, I wouldn’t know: I’m estranged from my family, but I’ve seen it in many a Hallmark film. Love, presents, a giant tree decked with spangly lights so blinding you might wreck a car, some kind of broiled bird that maybe a person roasts too long in an oven and then you have to call the fire department. Add in a little family discord and we’ve got a real story cooking! Much of the best fiction deals with issues of family drama—specifically how no one can ever manage to get along—so it makes sense to choose some of these for a festive get together. Truly, if I had to sit and think who’d I’d invite for a seasonal dysfunctional holiday, it would have to be a literary family. Here are a few I think would make the Arnett cut (a truly prestigious list):


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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

If I am going to pick a number one family to invite inside my derelict home, it is absolutely gonna be one from Florida. The Bigtrees have got dysfunction in spades: myriad wild gators, absent fathers, a failing theme park, and enough debt to let me know I’m probably gonna have to give them gas money on the way out of town. Karen Russell has created a family so ripe with Florida problems that I know they’ll have no issues helping me catch the lizard that’s parked itself behind the coffee maker. That’s intimacy, baby.


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Rosemary's Baby: A Novel by Ira Levin

Here’s another family that’s got a little one on the way! Though the child in question is actually…questionable. I would like to invite everyone from Ira Levin’s gang over for a holiday party, for sure, because lemme tell you I love a party where you have no idea what’s gonna happen next. An entire apartment complex full of scary weirdos! Baby with hooves and horns? Mysterious cocktails? Nightmares that become reality? Maybe someone spontaneously invited the devil? RSVP them YES! Happy to have them over.


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Geek Love: A Novel by Katherine Dunn

First of all, this family would have no problems making the trip to Florida—they already own an RV! Several of them in fact, because they run an entire traveling carnival. Love a big family holiday, and this would be a wild one. None of the children get along very well, and one of them is absolutely a sociopath. We could have funnel cakes and then all the Binewski children could perform for me while Al carnival barks for us and his wife Crystal Lil bites the head off a chicken. Rotisserie, of course. I’m not trying to freak out any of my pets or get blood on the carpet.


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The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

If we wanna get a holiday party game on, then why not invite over multiple families—specifically all the ones living in Sunset Towers who are under suspicion of murdering the heir to a fortune, Sam Westing! While we gather round the tree and sing carols, we could simultaneously argue amongst ourselves over who we think might be the murderer. We’ve got a bomber, a bookie, a birdwatcher, and a kleptomaniac. Clues are written on bits of Westing paper towel that we could inevitably use to clean up after someone spills a glass of wine. Watch out for Turtle Wexler, though. She kicks. Fine holiday fun for everyone.


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Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

Nothing funny to write here, this was just the absolute best book of the year (one that is so entrenched in place you feel like you’re actually out cooking in the hot Houston sun), and I’d be thrilled to have any of the dishes served up in Bryan Washington’s delicious debut short fiction collection. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to prepare the holiday meal—I’d just let everyone from Washington’s book come over and cook for me. So much good food, so much good fiction. That’s the best holiday I could ever ask for!


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