‘Tis the time of year for cookie-baking, gift-wrapping, and…spending possibly too much quality time with family members, even though you love ‘em the most. Here’s a handful of books to read in a quiet spot when you need a break. They’ll help you get in the right headspace to rejoin the clan for a night of Scrabble—trust us.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Not to be all “oh, you think you have it bad,” but imagine if your dad was the god of the sun, your mom was an ocean nymph, your siblings were a gang of bullies and sociopaths, and they and everyone else you knew articulated their disdain for you on the regular. You, too, might be somewhat relieved to be banished to an island where you got to do spells (with lineage like that, of course you’re a witch) and to hang out with your spirit animal (a lion!) all day. Age-old questions —like what it means to be bound by blood, how we become ourselves, and what responsibility we have to our children—get refreshing answers in Madeline Miller’s simultaneously inventive and faithful account of Circe’s story.
Homefire by Kamila Shamsie
Speaking of ancient Greek source material (they really did know something about family drama, right?), this contemporary retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone is an electrifying novel about how politics can circumscribe love. Through alternating perspectives, Kamila Shamsie gives us three Pakistani British orphaned siblings: Isma has traveled to the U.S. for grad school, and so Aneeka and Parvaiz, twins, must live alone in London for the first time. When Parvaiz gets recruited by Isis and travels to Syria in search of elusive roots, their connections to one another are tested. Each of them, searching in their own ways for something to root them, finds themselves more and more adrift, isolated even while longing for the same things.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
When you open a book and find a family tree with 13 branches, you know it’s going to be a pass-the-popcorn situation; throw in real estate, a ghost, and secrets that span half a century, and you’ll be turning pages like it’s your job. Angela Flournoy tackles mental health in the black community, urban decay in Detroit, and the economic traps inherent to life in the 21st century. They’re big topics, but she focuses on the human stakes; those issues play out in very real, relatable, and compelling ways for characters you feel like you know—and can’t help but root for.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Shout-out to Rachel Khong and Ruth, the protagonist of her funny and moving novel, for giving us what might be the best-ever description of seeing an ex be a good partner to someone else: “You know what else is unfair, about Joel? That I loosened the jar lid so someone else could open him.” Ruth is 30, recovering from that breakup, and figuring out what the heck to do with her life when she moves home to help care for her father who’s suffering from dementia. Goodbye, Vitamin goes down easier than any novel about such thorny subjects ought to, but it goes down with a force and warmth that make it difficult not to love.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
The first sentence—”My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”—immediately establishes the animating tension of this novel. Silver Sparrow is the story of two sisters, Dana and Chaurisse, strangers who become friends, only one of them aware of their familial bond, neither of them emerging unscathed. No one creates characters so fully human who also reflect their time and place quite like Tayari Jones, and here she masterfully captures how, even with the best intentions, we can fail the people we love most—and what happens when the people we love fail us.
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Two teenagers meet in a New York City record store. Natasha, practical, lover of science, 12 hours away from being deported with her family to Jamaica, doesn’t “have time for boys in suits with nice smiles.” Daniel, pushed by his parents’ high expectations towards a narrow path to adulthood, gets a funny feeling: “It’s like knowing all the words to a song but still finding them beautiful and surprising.” It’s not an opportune time for either of them to start a grand romance (and one that the moms and dads would certainly not approve of), and, yet, here they are. Nicola Yoon’s prose is funny and sweet and genuine, just like falling in love for the first time.