Family Matters: From Asia to the Americas, a Recurring Theme in the Novel

By Carole Reedy

This year we’ll be pointing you toward many outstanding novels from around the world. Happy 2014 and let’s get started.

From the Continent of India

Family Matters, the theme of this column, is also the name of a Rohinton Mistry novel, a domestic drama about an aging parent and also a view of present-day Mumbai. Best-known for his successful A Fine Balance, one of Mistry’s themes is the problem of the family imposed on by the outside world. His novels are based in India, the characters constantly searching and defining themselves in terms of their environment and the politics of the time. A Fine Balance is an honest, if heart-wrenching, book about the 1975 reign of Indira Gandhi and her State of Emergency. It is sure to go down in literature history as one of the finest novels written. It’s a mystery (no pun intended) why this talented writer hasn’t written a novel since 2002, although he has published short stories. Perhaps he’ll surprise us with another grand work soon.

Anticipation is also running high for Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl, to be published in 2016. In 2013 we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the publication of Seth’s A Suitable Boy, the 900-page post-independence novel of four families and the search for a suitable boy for Lata Mehra. The sequel follows Lata’s grandchildren in present day.

The richness of the Indian culture is a magnet for many successful and talented writers. I unequivocally recommend the novels of Anita Desai (her short, very enjoyable novel The Zig Zag Way takes place in Mexico!), Kiran Desai (Anita’s daughter, the second woman to win the Booker Prize for her novel The Inheritance of Loss), Jhumpa Lahiri (mentioned in other columns here for her recent acclaimed novel The Lowlands), and the forever-brilliant Bharati Mukherjee (Jasmine, Holder of the World, Wife).

The Indian writers cover many themes in addition to family including immigration, globalization, and political upheaval, all of which make for insightful and compelling reading.

From the US

Regardless the hemisphere, writers and artists concern themselves with family. A notable writer of the genre is Jonathan Franzen, who came to fame in 2001 when his novel The Corrections won the National Book award. Unlike novelists with just one book in them, Franzen returned nine years later with Freedom, another book about a dysfunctional family (aren’t they all?), receiving accolades from the critics. Franzen also writes about the problems of our world. For a compelling essay, google “What’s wrong with the modern world” to locate Franzen’s September 13, 2013, essay in The Guardian.

Philip Roth is one of America’s most famous modern novelists. Given his literary contribution over the past 50 years, many believe he’s a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The themes of his books are varied and timely, but almost always he casts a sharp eye on society and, in many cases, the family structure. Roth paints portraits of family members and their reactions to one another and surrounding society. Most often he examines the Jewish family, children’s relationships with their parents, and the world at large. His first novels in the 60s–Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint–were humorous portraits of Jewish American families. Roth’s more recent efforts include Indignation and The Human Stain. American Pastoral won Roth the Pulitzer in 1997 and is considered one of his finest works.

From England and Russia

Family as theme has been researched and written about since the novel as a literary form came into existence in the 18th century. The first modern novel, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, is written in the form of letters from Pamela Andrews to her parents. This new art form, the novel, allowed writers to explore the psyche of the individual and his/her place in society and the family.

The 19th century (and specifically in England, Spain, and Russia) saw the development of the novel and novelists who to this day remain among the world’s favorites, their books having long since moved into film. Jane Austen gave us short, honest, humorous novels about family life and love in rural England. The Bronte sisters, from the moors of York, wrote bleaker novels with more tension. Heathcliff and Jane Eyre, the beloved characters in Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, and Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, remain household words even today.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So Tolstoy wrote as his opening to Anna Karenina. During the 19th century (known as the Golden Age of Russian literature), the theme of novels centered on families and the effects of social change, as told so beautifully by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. Many of these classics are available free from Kindle and other ebook resources.