Around this time of year, families get together – to celebrate holidays, to catch up, to throw fuel on the fire of their dysfunction. If you’re dreading the upcoming reunion or already in the thick of it, you need to read these eleven books about messed up families. If nothing else, they’ll make you feel better about your own!

11 Books About Messed Up Families - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You know what’s not messed up? Affiliate links! There’s a few on this page and they’re an easy way to support this blog by making a purchase.

Flowers In The Attic by V.C. Andrews

Flowers In The Attic - VC Andrews - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Dollangangers look to be the very opposite of a messed up family… at first. Two adoring parents, four blonde smiley children, lots of laughter and love. But things turn quickly for them in Flowers In The Attic – the patriarch is killed, the wolf is at the door, and the mother has no choice but to throw herself at the mercy of her estranged father. To smooth things over with the old man, she has to hide her kids in the attic, because (get your bucket) it turns out they’re actually the product of incest. And history seems doomed to repeat itself. Yikes! Read my full review of Flowers In The Attic here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Korede is the person Ayoola would call to help her hide a body. (Come on, we’ve all got one!) The thing is, she’s actually made that call – more than once. In My Sister, The Serial Killer, Ayoola has the unfortunate habit of dispatching her boyfriends, and Korede always has to clean up the mess. That’s not so bad – what’s a murderous secret between sisters? – until Ayoola sets her sights on Korede’s workplace crush. That puts her between the rock and the proverbial hard place: does she stand by her sister and keep her secrets, or does she warn the gorgeous man she loves? Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home - Alison Bechdel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you like your books about messed up families in graphic novel format, you can’t go past Fun Home. This “tragicomic graphic memoir” charts Alison Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her own father. Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college – fairly standard so far – but shortly thereafter she discovered her father, funeral director Bruce Bechdel, was also gay. Then, just a few weeks later, he suddenly passed away, leaving a messy tangle of questions for Bechdel to unravel on her own. It’s a dark story, but it’s also funny, and a poignant reminder that all families are messed up in one way or another.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The title of The Virgin Suicides is enough to give the impression that it’s a messed up book – but you’ve got to read the blurb or flip through the first through pages to realise it’s a book about a messed up family, specifically. The boys in a quiet suburb of Detroit are obsessed with the Libson sisters. They’re beautiful, enigmatic, and withholding – a potent combination. Over the course of a year, one by one, they die by suicide. What fatal melancholy has infected this family? And why is it up to a gang of adolescent boys to figure it out?

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tara Westover grew up in an unusual family situation, but it took her a while to appreciate how truly messed up it was. She’s incredibly generous in sharing her story with us in Educated, a memoir about her upbringing and how she re-learned how to navigate the world. Growing up under the thumb of a paranoid survivalist father, with no access to schooling or medical care, Westover learned to read by flipping through the family Bible and treated injuries incurred in the junkyard with essential oils and prayer. Her salvation came in the form of education, teaching herself enough to get accepted into university. Outside of her family home, she learned – among other things – that not all families were like hers. Read my full review of Educated here.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Gillian Flynn writes books about messed up marriages, books about messed up true crime fan clubs, and (of course) books about messed up families. Sharp Objects is the latter. Journalist Camille Preaker never intended to return to her hometown, but the murder of a young girl and abduction of another lures her back on assignment for her employer. Back in her childhood bedroom, she starts piecing together the clues as to the young girls’ fates… and realises it might have more to do with her own messed up family than she could have guessed. There’s a killer twist in the final pages of this one you don’t want to miss! Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived In The Castle - Shirley Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re looking for classic gothic books about messed up families, look no further! Shirley Jackson is the queen of quiet, creeping horror, and We Have Always Lived In The Castle places her unsettling hair-raising style in a family home… of sorts. The story is narrated by a peculiar young women who goes by Merricat; she doesn’t like washing herself, dogs, or noise, but she does like her sister Constance, Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Creeped out, yet? What about when she tells you the rest of her family is dead? This one is a classic for a reason!

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eleanor Oliphant’s family might be small, but it is messed up in spades! It takes a while for the full picture to unfold in Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. At first, it seems like Eleanor is just a bit of an odd duck, with a lonely life and a burgeoning drinking problem. She talks to Mummy every Wednesday night, and their conversations are full of self-esteem pitfalls and unusually cruel gaslighting. You’ll be wondering before long why Eleanor hasn’t simply cut her mother off for good, and it’ll take a while for the reason why to become clear. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know, aside from all the period-typical morbidity and mortality, the Brontë family wasn’t that messed up. Sure, Branwell was a handful, and the girls had plenty of sisterly squabbles, but there was nothing truly awful going on. So, where on earth did Emily draw inspiration for Wuthering Heights, the ultimate messed up family novel? Bad boy Heathcliff is in love with his adopted sister Cathy, who marries the boy next door but regrets it, then comes to haunt Heathcliff after his death, which drives him to madness and he abducts her daughter and… just, trust me, it is messed up. You’ll finish it with a lot of unanswered questions about Emily’s twisted imagination. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I really backed myself into a corner including We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in this list of books about messed up families. See, Rosemary’s family is definitely messed up… but I can’t tell you how or why without completely spoiling one of the greatest twists in contemporary literature for you! So, you’ll just have to trust me on this one. I think all I can get away with saying is that both of Rosemary’s older siblings are conspicuously absent when the story begins, and she has a rotten relationship with her parents. She thinks she can make a clean break from all of them, but she’s dead wrong. Some family stuff just sticks with you, no matter what you do to shake it off. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone - Benjamin Stevenson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever sat around at a family reunion and realised: “everyone here is a murderer”? “Someone here killed someone today and it could’ve been any of them”? Probably not, I’d wager. But even if you can’t relate exactly, you’ll surely enjoy Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone. Everyone in Ernie’s family, as the title suggests, has killed someone. He just wishes he’d killed whomever decided to host their family reunion at a ski resort. It’s “Knives Out meets Clue meets Agatha Christie meets The Thursday Murder Club“, and it’s good – albeit ridiculous – fun.