It’s All Relative: Family Debuts | The Reader’s Shelf, April 1, 2016

An array of families are depicted in these debuts, from those falling apart at the seams to those ripped apart from inside to those trying very hard to keep what little they can together.

nestThree of the four middle-aged siblings of the dysfunctional Plumb family have long been awaiting the distribution of their trust fund—to send children to college, to shore up a failing business, and to keep a withering writing career on track. They are shocked to learn that their mother has all but emptied the account to yank their oldest brother out of his most recent self-made mess. Thus begins the insightful and brilliantly set The Nest (Ecco: HarperCollins. 2016. ISBN 9780062414212. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062414236), in which author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney takes readers from one end of New York City to the other as she explores the lives and fates of the Plumbs in accessible and adroit prose. Employing a wide cast of characters and a generous spirit, Sweeney puts family ­dynamics on full display.

In Idra Novey’s inventive Ways To ­Disappear (Little, Brown. 2016. ISBN 9780316298490. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316298506), a brother and sister, joined by an American translator, search for their mother, Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda, in the dangerous and balmy city of Rio. The quickly moving, episodic novel unfolds like a poem as it recounts an offbeat story many have a part in telling. There is Beatriz’s daughter, Raquel, who is distanced from her in so many ways; Marcus, Beatriz’s son, who pays the worst physical price for her leaving; translator Emma, who travels from Pittsburgh to start the search; Beatriz’s first publisher, who is able to unravel her literary clues; and at last the author herself, who speaks through her previous stories and the one she shares at the end.

black rabbit hallEve Chase’s modern British gothic, Black Rabbit Hall (Putnam. 2016. ISBN 9780399174124. $27; ebk ISBN 9780698191457), mixes secrets, romance, and family tragedies across two generations as it delves into the damaged childhoods of the Alton siblings in the 1960s and the ­present-day wedding plans of Lorna ­Dunaway. Moody, lushly described, and searing, the story of the Altons is from a fairy tale, complete with a tragic death of a mother and the appearance of a wicked stepmother. Lorna is shouldering tragedy of her own, having lost her mother, too, which drives her to Cornwall in search of a wedding locale associated with an enigmatic memory from her past. The mystery of how Lorna connects with the Altons fuels this layered tale, including a house straight out of a Daphne du Maurier novel.

Be Frank with Me (Morrow. 2016. ISBN 9780062413710. $25.99; ebk ISBN 9780062413734), Julia Claiborne Johnson’s spry and quirky novel about families and their secrets, is a charmer. At its heart is Frank, the nine-year-old son of famous and reclusive author Mimi Banning. Frank dresses in 1930s Hollywood glamour (spats and cuff links, even a Fez), possesses a ­genius IQ, and has rigid rules about what is allowed. His neglectful mom is almost as idiosyncratic and anxiously watches as the deadlines whiz by for her second book. Into the chaos comes Alice Whitley, sent by Mimi’s publisher to serve as an assistant and offer aid. As the plot speeds along with large doses of wit and sweetness, Alice finds herself entangled in Frank’s life and struggles to understand the dynamics of the Banning household.

hold stillWhat choices are irrevocable? Which are inevitable? Questions such as these and the power of family relationships seethe beneath the surface of Lynn ­Steger Strong’s Hold Still (Liveright: Norton. 2016. ISBN 9781631491689. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631491696), as Maya Taylor, an English professor and all-but-failed mother, navigates the years between her daughter Ellie’s childhood and the ruin ­Ellie brings to another household. Crushed in the middle are Maya’s husband and son and Annie, an early student of Maya’s, among others. Strong excels at building place and time, creating a solid sense of locale for her characters to ricochet around, and depicting emotional distance—words that cannot be forced, a hand reaching and then falling back—as she marks the many moments lost by her characters.

In Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang (Ecco: HarperCollins. 2012. ISBN 9780061579059. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062092519), Buster and Annie return to the home of their performance artist parents, Caleb and ­Camille Fang, possibly as unwilling witnesses to their next great piece. Buster and Annie grew up in the subversive glow of the art world in which, as Child A and Child B, they were featured in their parents’ avant-garde productions. They are not fully engaged, therefore, when Caleb and Camille disappear at a rest stop, their abandoned vehicle bloody in the same way as a string of recent murders. The story of Buster’s and Annie’s troubled adulthood and what actually happened to their parents is intercut with flashbacks of their youthful routines, making Wilson’s offering an evocative examination of who the Fangs really are.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at


  1. Ron Block says:

    So happy to see The Family Fang on the list. A title that did not get it’s proper due the first time around!