1. Chanel Bonfire, Wendy Lawless
The book I’ve chosen to top off this list reads like an absorbing – yet depressing – work of fiction, but the unfortunate reality is that it’s a memoir, and the author, Wendy Lawless, and her sister had to grow up coping with Georgann, the psychotic mother at the center of this story. Georgann consistently uproots Wendy and her sister – the book flits between New York and London – to follow men, money, and glamour wherever she thinks she might find them. Unlike the fictional mothers in the books below, Georgann’s problems extend beyond the ego; replete with alcohol induced rages and repeated suicide attempts. The book is a quick read, but its nearly impossible to quell the sobering thought every few pages that Lawless actually had to live through this.
2. The Chocolate Money, Ashley Prentice Norton
Upon initial inspection, The Chocolate Money appears a simple and saccharine prep school tale in the vein of Curits Sittenfeld’s seminal work, Prep (though that one is hardly saccharine either), but at the heart of this book is a deeply depressing tale of Bettina Ballentyne, the daughter of a self-obsessed heiress to a massive chocolate fortune named Babs, struggling to quell the traits that her mother has passed down to her as she navigates the waters of a tony New Hampshire boarding school. The book is scattered with delicious hints of the family wealth, but their intention is not to impress the reader – set against the backdrop of Bettina’s starkly depressing life, they only serve to prove that money certainly does not buy happiness. This book will make you laugh, gasp, and ultimately feel grateful for your own family situation, as it certainly doesn’t get worse than this.
See also: The Starboard Sea, Prep
3. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple
When I recommended this book to friends, many were entirely turned of by the concept of reading a book written in “e-mail form.” Those who generally tend towards Nabokov and Waugh initially turned their noses at a book that reminded them of “TTFN” or “TTYL”, two books written in the early 2000s in “AOL Instant Messenger Format (side note: those were good, when we were in sixth grade – don’t pretend you didn’t read/enjoy them).” However, once they gave it a chance, the charming and eccentric tone of the tale instantly won them all over. Bernadette is an agoraphobe living in Seattle who corresponds exclusively with an assistant in India, to whom she outsources most of her tasks. The tale takes readers through the rainy landscape of Seattle all the way to Antarctica, a place her daughter, Bee, has long been obsessed with visiting. It’s difficult to convey the plot without giving too much away, but its certainly worth a read.
4. The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
“We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa Clause myth and got nothing but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. ‘Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,’ Dad said, ‘ you’ll still have your stars.”
I must admit that I read Walls’ memoir in seventh grade, and, being that I’m 22 now, my recollection of the specific events in the book is far from perfect. However, since devouring it on a plane nearly a decade ago, it has been a mainstay in my arsenal of favorite books. Walls’ memoir, unlike those listed above, primarily features an eccentric father figure at its center, one who entirely rejects the conventions of parenting in favor of his own brand (the quote above may give you an idea). The Glass Castle tracks the nomadic and fascinating life of the Walls family and details their struggles living in the shadow of their dysfunctional situation – though, given her success as an author, its clear that Walls emerged victorious. Also worth a read: Half-Broke Horses (a fascinating biography of Walls’ grandmother) or her fantastic work of fiction, The Silver Star.
5. This is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper
This book takes place over the course of a shiva period following the death of the patriarch of the Foxman family. The book opens with Judd Foxman, our protagonist, discovering his wife’s affair with his boss, the head honcho at the radio station where he works (and promptly leaves). Judd, however, is hardly the only one in the family struggling. His sister, Wendy, is dealing with a Los Angeles bigshot husband who has little time for or interest in his family, and would rather be anywhere but sitting shiva with them. Judd’s mother decides that the shiva period is a great time for her to explore her sexuality, and, naturally, chaos ensues. A funny and lighthearted read that was recently adapted into a movie, which allegedly wasn’t very good. All the more reason to read the book!