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When You're Here, You're Family

About ten years ago, my partner’s family gathered under somewhat stressful circumstances. After a long day in a hospital waiting area, we decided to eat at a certain ubiquitous Italian eatery across the street. At the time, their slogan was when you’re here, you’re family. As it turns out, our dining experience proved that we were, in fact, family with all the beautiful and hideous complexities that word contains.

As I mentioned, the day was fraught and, as a result, some of those ingrained familial dynamics began to bubble up around that endless basket of breadsticks. At this particular restaurant, one has a choice of a bowl of soup or a salad with their entrée. I had been in a freezing cold hospital all day, and I wanted soup. I ordered soup. I was happy with soup. However, when the giant bowl of salad arrived for the table, another family member insisted I also have salad. Repeatedly insisted—“there was plenty; it was an endless bowl; I must have salad!” He nettled me throughout our meal why and how I could pass on this pre-dressed treasure before us. In that moment, all of the day’s small slights and sarcastic quips threatened to erupt into a huge argument—over a salad.

A friend calls this my very Jonathan Franzen day. Of course, I laugh when I tell this story, comparing it to the scene in August Osage County when Barbara Weston tells her mother Violet to EAT THE FISH (in slightly more colorful language)! I imagine my brother-in-law feeling the same way about me digging in so firmly about a salad. Of course, it’s not about the salad or the fish.

Writers will always mine families for stories because of what they reveal to us about ourselves. I know some readers who prefer to avoid these types of novels because they hit a little too close to home. Still, there are plenty of readers who love these stories for the same reason. I fall into this latter group. The more generations the better. In fact, if there’s a family tree in the front of the book, there’s a 90% chance I’m going to absolutely love it.

We define ourselves from within and outside of our families. Whether it’s our family of origin or the families we’ve created, we understand ourselves and our world more clearly in relationship to these people—these people who make us full of gratitude and, sometimes, rage, but never salad. If you, too, love a great family story you might enjoy a few of my favorites. See the list here and enjoy reading about (if not being part of) these fictional families.

When you read a book, you enter a different world. But the act of reading does more than broaden our world-view; it creates empathy, and nurtures civility.