16 Enthralling Family Sagas with a Strong Sense of Place

16 Enthralling Family Sagas with a Strong Sense of Place

Tuesday, 3 August, 2021

There’s something irresistible about getting an inside look at other people’s families. The more surprising revelations, dramatic backstory, and acts of redemption, the better.

These stories will take you around the world and into significant events in history — civil wars, social upheaval, regime change — all experienced through the intimacy of family dynamics. Yes, world events have a big impact, but it’s the quiet moments, the betrayals, the blunders, and the acts of loyalty, bravery, unselfishness, and love that truly make a life — and a family.


Set in Chicago, Past and Present

colorful chicago skyline with a rainbow
Photo courtesy of Ken Mages/Unsplash.

So Big - Edna Ferber

So Big
> Edna Ferber

Meet Selina, a headstrong and heartbreaking heroine who perseveres in the face of grinding challenges of everyday life as a truck farmer in early 20th-century Chicago.

Orphaned at 19 when her father is shot and killed in a gambling house, Selina Peake puts herself back together and lands a job as a schoolteacher in the farmland outside the city. Her education, love of beauty, and independent spirit are greeted with suspicion in the insular community — even after (or because) she marries a local farmer who’s kindly but ignorant.

The story traces the contours of Selina’s life and her son Dirk, nicknamed ‘So Big,’ and is a vivid time machine to a Chicago that was a mix of thriving industry and struggling farmers, a city that promised opportunities for those willing to pay a steep price.

When Edna Ferber finished her manuscript in 1924, she wondered ‘Who would be interested in a novel about a middle-aged woman in a calico dress with wispy hair and bad teeth, grubbing on a little truck farm south of Chicago?’ It sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its first year and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925. {more}

Selina gave a little bounce of anticipation. She was doing a revolutionary and daring thing… For equipment she had youth, curiosity, a steel-strong frame; one brown lady’s-cloth, one wine-red cashmere; four hundred and ninety-seven dollars; and a gay, adventuresome spirit that was never to die, though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps, painfully. But always to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that. — Edna Ferber

Spoonbenders - Daryl Gregory

> Daryl Gregory

The Amazing Telemachus Family was on its way to fame and fortune. What else to expect from a family that includes a psychic, a human lie detector, and a kid with telekinetic powers?! But one night, a disastrous performance brings their career to a halt. This is the story of everything that happened next.

What begins as a whimsical, almost-sci-fi romp gradually becomes the heart-warming (and riotously funny) family saga you didn’t know you needed. These characters love each other in the messy, sarcastic way of real families with long-held grudges, inside jokes, tender moments, and plenty of teasing.

In no particular order and with no spoilers, the story also weaves magic tricks, shootouts, psychic phenomena, touches of romance, and second (third and fourth) chances into a page-turning novel. When the cinematic climax arrives, it catches all the balls that have been in the air in one graceful swoop. {more}

You didn’t fool me, Maureen McKinnon, because you weren’t trying to. You’re the real thing. It took me long enough to believe it — it’s against my nature. I’d be damned if some blue-eyed Chicago beauty was going to make a mark out of me. But you, you’ve got the goods. You’re an honest-to-God psychic. And I’m in love with you. — Daryl Gregory


Set in Cuba, Past and Present

vintage car driving on street in cuba
Photo courtesy of Florian Wehde/Unsplash.

The Distant Marvels - Chantel Acevedo

The Distant Marvels
> Chantel Acevedo

Our heroine Maria Sirena is a natural-born storyteller. She uses her skills as a lectora — a reader — to entertain and inform her co-workers at the cigar factory. But one night in 1963, when it seems the world might come to an end, she weaves stories that hold fear at bay.

Castro has recently seized power, and Hurricane Flora is bearing down on the island. A group of women — old, young, optimistic, scared — have been forcibly evacuated from their homes and tucked away together in the former governor’s mansion. To distract from the worry of the rising floodwaters, Maria Sirena does what she does best: She tells them the incredible story of her life.

The women huddle together as Maria spins fantastic tales. And as Maria shares her secret sins and regrets, the other women, too, whisper revelations of the kind that emerge only in the unusual companionship found in the middle of the night. {more}

I drink the lemonade in sips, in between pauses, as I tell her the story of my birth, of the mermaid that appeared to my mother, claiming me. I tell her that my parents were rebels, and how my father fought in all three wars of independence. I tell her of my connection to this house. I tell her about vengeance, and the tragic life of slaves, and a story about pirate’s gold. — Chantel Acevedo


Set in an English Manor House

gabled manor house in the english countryside
Photo courtesy of Nathan McDine/Unsplash.

Wakenhyrst - Michelle Paver

> Michelle Paver

Our heroine Maud — feisty, put-upon, and about seven shades too curious — lives with her father, her two brothers, and a gaggle of servants in Wake’s End, an Edwardian manse on the edge of a wild fen. It’s 1906. Her mother is dead, and her father Edmund sees demons everywhere he looks.

Outside the walls of their home, Edmund Stearn is a revered historian. But inside the house, he’s a tyrannical taskmaster with unbreakable rules. One day, while slinking about her father’s study, Maud discovers his private diaries and takes the only reasonable action: She reads them. 15th January 1911. Last night I had the dream again. WHY? Just like that, Maud is caught up in the secrets of a gruesome murder as she struggles not with the question of who did it but why.

The mystery unfolds through two narratives: Maud’s unusual and heartbreaking upbringing and the increasingly unhinged entries from her father’s journals. The story gracefully weaves together threads of witchcraft and demonology, a Hieronymus Bosch-esque painting (with ‘tiny malevolent faces’ that were ‘painted in such obsessive detail they could be alive’), the folklore of the fens, and various hauntings of both a ghostly and emotional nature. {more}

She always liked how Wake’s End looked from outside. Its bumpy roofs were splashed with orange lichen, and its dormer windows poking from the attics looked like eyebrows over its shaggy green ivy-clad fence. The ivy kept Maud safe, and now she befriended the creatures that lived in it: wasps, spiders, whole families of sparrows. She would lie in bed watching the rustly green light filter through the leaves and listening to magpies stomping about on the roof. The old house was home to thousands of wild creatures. Not even father could evict them. — Michelle Paver


Set in Iran, Pre- and Post-Revolution

three women in colorful headscarves in iran
Photo courtesy of Hasan Almasi/Unsplash.

Disoriental — Négar Djavadi

> Négar Djavadi

Our heroine Kimiâ Sadr is a storyteller — sardonic and breathtakingly vulnerable, a modern Scheherazade with a predilection for punk rock. She’s an exile from Iran, the daughter of a dissident journalist, and the granddaughter of a woman born into a 19th-century harem.

When we meet Kimiâ, she’s alone in the waiting room of a Paris clinic. She bides her time by telling us her family’s life story and slowly revealing what brought her to this chair in this room.

Her family is almost the stuff of folklore. There’s the great-grandfather who collected 52 wives at his estate in Mazandaran, a province in the north of Iran with green hills and cooling mist. We meet her parents Darius and Sara, a pair whose love was rivaled only by devotion to revolution. And there are grandmothers, uncles, sisters, cousins, and neighborhood friends, all essential to the tale and to Kimiâ learning to understand herself. {more}

My sisters remember other times that I’ve completely forgotten. Summer nights sleeping on the roof of Grandma Emma’s house under a patched-up muslin mosquito net; the books Sara bought us before long vacations; trips to the hammam with my aunts and cousins in the villages of Mazandaran. On the rare occasions when the three of us are all together, without their husbands or children, having dinner in a restaurant chosen by Mina (who has been a vegetarian since THE EVENT), they always end up talking about those times… Then they warm up, and laugh, and cut off each other’s sentences, and repeat the same sentences as if no others could possibly be used to describe those moments. — Négar Djavadi


Set in 20th-Century Japan

an older person looking through the doorway at a japanese garden
Photo courtesy of Masaaki Komori/Unsplash.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms — Gail Tsukiyama

This sweet and sad multi-generational family saga spans from 1939 to 1966, taking us — along with the unforgettable Matsumoto family — through the worlds of sumo wrestling, traditional Noh theater, and the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.

When the story opens, two brothers — orphaned by their parent’s tragic death — are being raised by their grandparents. The boys are very close and polar opposites: Hiroshi is strong and outgoing, with dreams of becoming a superstar sumo wrestler. His younger brother Kenji is slim and quiet, nicknamed ‘Kenji the ghost.’ He’s a sensitive, artistic soul who longs to become a mask-maker for the Noh theater.

As the novel weaves the threads of the boys’ and their grandparents’ lives, it branches off to share the stories of the other people who become important to them: friends, lovers, spouses, co-workers. It’s a bit folkloric in tone, and Tsukiyama is adept at knitting the stories together in a way that keeps the pages turning and keeps us invested in the characters. {more}

He heard Fumiko inside cooking dinner, the scent of rice wine and sugar in the air letting him know that he was still alive. He tilted his face up toward the warmth of the setting sun and closed his eyes against the dull throbbing in his head. He hadn’t forgotten the footsteps, feeling someone standing right there beside him, even if he refused to acknowledge their presence. Yoshio wasn’t ready to go yet. Life was too long and too short at the same time. — Gail Tsukiyama


Set in Mexico, Past and Present

mexican man sitting with flowers in a cemetery
Photo courtesy of Frederik Trovatten/Unsplash.

Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate
> Laura Esquivel

Food, love, and appetite color this luscious family saga set in a Mexican border town around 1900. This intimate story of one family is played out against the dramatic backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.

Wistful and full of magic, the tale reads like a legend that’s been passed down through generations, and it centers on the forbidden love of Tita and Pedro. As the youngest daughter, it’s Tita’s fate to forsake love and to care for her domineering mother, Mama Elena, until her mother’s death. But Tita and Pedro fall madly in love. When Tita felt Pedro’s gaze on her, ‘she understood exactly how raw dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil.’

To be close to her, Pedro marries Tita’s older sister, and no one’s life remains untouched by this flawed decision.

Tita spends her days in the kitchen, both her gift and her curse. The food she prepares is infused with deep emotion and magical powers. Her tears, bitterly wept into the batter of a wedding cake, induce a devastating sense of longing in the guests who take a bite. A delicate sauce made of rose petals inspires incendiary passions around the dinner table.

This is an enchanting and sorrowful story of family obligation, the things that feed us, and a desire that cannot be extinguished. {more}

Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour. — Laura Esquivel

Caramelo - Sandra Cisneros

> Sandra Cisneros

This is a sweeping, multi-generational family saga that vividly recreates family life in Mexico City, Chicago, and San Antonio, Texas. Its story of one eventful summer — and the ripple effects of the aftermath — explores how family mythology is created from love and loss and lies and secrets.

This tale is carefully woven together to tell stories within stories that spiral and twist into intricate patterns as a web does — and as families do. Its focus is on our heroine and narrator Lala Reyes and the members of her extended family.

When we meet Lala, she’s gearing up for the boisterous family’s annual road trip from Chicago to Mexico City. She is a sharp observer, and we see the places she visits — Mexico City, Chicago, San Antonio — with precise and delighted attention to detail.

There’s a touch of magical realism— and the characters often have a loose relationship with the truth — so the individual stories within the narrative take on the sheen of fairy tales. As Lala matures, she comes to see how the women in her life cling to their past hurts and resentments like heirlooms. To break out of this family curse, Lala must understand how the people she loves became the people that they are. {more}

The Circus Garibaldi consisted of a zebra-striped mule hauling an ancient oxcart overloaded with canvas backdrops of airplanes, madonnas, and invented Tibetan landscapes. The company included a lady photographer, a Mayan family of acrobatic clowns, a gypsy accordionist/percussionist, a dancing raccoon that told fortunes, and the singer Pánfila Palafox. The day they arrived you could not speak without the melodramatic accompaniment of the wind. — Sandra Cisneros


Set in Nigeria, Now

young man and woman riding a scooter in nigerai
Photo courtesy of John Onaeko/Unsplash.

My Sister, the Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial Killer
> Oyinkan Braithwaite

The setup is right there in the title: one sister kills her boyfriends when they become problematic, and the other (long-suffering) sister bails her out over and over again.

But buckle up! This smart, snappy, fast-paced literary thriller is not really a serial-killer story, nor is it a crime novel. Instead, it’s an astute and moving (and darkly funny) investigation of what we’ll do for the people we love. It just happens to be exploring this universal theme via a nuanced relationship between the two sisters.

Ayoola, our killer, is the exact opposite of her sister. She’s flirty and curvy and bubbly with a devil-may-care attitude. Korede is her dark-mirror opposite: angular, responsible, less confident.

As we get to know these characters, we watch them bicker and make up, deal with messy murders, and endure a love triangle. Slowly, we also learn their history and how they became the women they are. And we internalize why Korende can’t/won’t abandon Ayoola to clean up her own messes. {more}

It takes a whole lot longer to dispose of a body than to dispose of a soul, especially if you don’t want to leave any evidence of foul play. But my eyes kept darting to the slumped corpse, propped up against the wall. I wouldn’t be able to do a thorough job until his body was elsewhere. — Oyinkan Braithwaite

Butter Honey Pig Bread - Francesca Ekwuyasi

Butter Honey Pig Bread
> Francesca Ekwuyasi

This is the story of three extraordinary women, bound by love, who lose each other in the mess of life and then find their way back together.

The story begins when we meet Kambirinachi. Her life is bright when she falls madly in love and gives birth to twin daughters: Taiye and Kehinde. They’re devoted to each other, as close as twins can be. But then a Very Bad Thing happens, and the family ties begin to unravel. Taiye kippers off to London. Kehinde flees to Montreal, Canada. The sisters who were so close are estranged from each other, their mother, and their home.

After more than a decade, the twins are drawn back to Lagos, to their mother’s house, and to each other — to heal, to hope, to fight, and to eat.

Francesca Ekwuyasi’s prose engages the senses; it’s almost tactile. There’s sex and food and the heat of Lagos, tension and joy, fear, tenderness. And yes, there are moments of darkness — the event that sends the girls to opposite sides of the globe is tragic. But the overall vibe of the novel is love. Romantic love, sisterly love, motherly love, love of life. Beautiful, messy, forgiving. {more}

There were lovely things about being alive, she had to remember, like the taste of guavas. Their existence filled her with so much joy that it burst out of her in gleeful laughter. This is how she ate them: She found the sharpest knife in the kitchen, hiding it if her mother was near, the woman could shout, eh! Holding the blade as far away from her body as her thin arms would allow — because images of her throat, tattered and bloody, flashed through her mind whenever she saw a knife; knives could also be doorways — she sliced the bumpy emerald skin off, always trying and often failing to make a single long ribbon of the tart rind. After taking delicate bites of the soft pink flesh, shallow bites to leave the grainy seeds undisturbed, until the fruit became a knobby, slimy ball, she would pop the entire thing into her mouth, and spit out the fruit’s tiny seeds, one by one, all sucked clean. — Francesca Ekwuyasi


Set in Philadelphia’s Tough Kensington Neighborhood

colorful row houses in philadelphia
Photo courtesy of Jon Bilous/Shutterstock.

Long Bright River - Liz Moore

Long Bright River
> Liz Moore

You could describe this remarkable novel as a crime story, but that would discount how it weaves a rich story of sibling love and rivalry into the structure of the police procedural.

Most of the action takes place in Kensington, Philadelphia. Once a working-class neighborhood centered around family, it’s been mostly abandoned to squatters in empty rowhouses, chasing their addiction to heroin.

And that’s where we meet two women, bonded by blood and separated by circumstance. Mickey Fitzpatrick is a 30-something patrol officer in the Philadelphia Police Department; her younger sister Kacey is a sex worker who supports her heroin habit by turning tricks. They haven’t spoken in far too long, but then a string of murders occur in Mickey’s beat, and Kacey is nowhere to be found. Mickey worries that the next body she discovers will be her sister. So she vows to find Mickey and figure out who’s killing these women.

This is a deep dive into issues of trust and loyalty, and it highlights how the determination to change your life might mean leaving others behind. It’s also a timely look at how painful it is to work hard and still be poor and how harshly the world judges people without resources. {more}

Some people do have trouble with Kensington, but to me, the neighborhood itself has become like a relative, slightly problematic but dear in the old-fashioned way that that word is sometimes used, treasured, valuable to me. — Liz Moore


Set in a Chinese Restaurant in Rockville, Maryland

chinese restaurant dining room decorated in red and gold

Number One Chinese Restaurant - Lillian Li

Nothing has changed at the family-owned Beijing Duck for decades, including the menu (fried rice and Peking duck precisely cut into 28 slices) and the ‘gaudy, overstuffed décor’ of red upholstered chairs, floral carpet, and tasseled lamps.

Owner Jimmy Han is eager to ditch his father’s traditional approach for a more modern, sophisticated restaurant. But his brother Johnny and the customers like things just as they are. The situation is complicated by their domineering mother, the long shadow of their deceased father, and a sketchy, almost-gangster known as Uncle Pang.

Made foolishly bold by his ambition, Jimmy strikes a losing deal with Pang. Soon, tensions and grievances come to a boiling point, and the ensuing act of violence has a profound impact on everyone: the Han brothers, their families, and the staff, who’ve worked at the restaurant for decades.

Word to the wise: Put your favorite Chinese restaurant on speed-dial because you’ll be craving delivery from page one. {more}

The walk-in was the perfect place to propose! They would both cry freezing tears of joy while the frigid temperatures saved their hearts from exploding. Their embrace would keep them warm. He even spotted a bare pallet that made the prospect of getting down on one knee less daunting. — Lillian Li


Set in Syria, on a Road Trip Through a Civil War

Photo courtesy of Eddie & Carolina Stigson/Unsplash

Death Is Hard Work — set in Syria

Death Is Hard Work
> Khaled Khalifa

The dying wish of elderly Syrian Abdel Latif is to be buried in his ancestral village. So his two sons and daughter pack themselves — along with their father’s body — into a minivan for the fateful road trip from Damascus to his hometown of Anabiya.

Siblings Bolbol, Hussein, and Fatima have grown apart, as adults sometimes do — and as the story unfolds, we learn that Abdel was not an ideal father. Hussein was his obvious favorite. Fatima has retreated into her own world, and Bolbol still seethes with resentment under the surface. Now, the three are trapped together in a web of obligation, commitment, and the stifling confines of their vehicle.

Aside from the obvious discomfort of sharing the backseat with a corpse, there’s another problem: It’s 2013, and Syria is a war zone. As the family endures checkpoints, bombings, and life-threatening stoppages on the open road, they reminisce about their lives and wonder if it’s possible to narrow the gaps between them to reclaim their sense of family. {more}

When Bolbol met up with his father for the penultimate time, he saw that Abdel Latif was no longer an old man filled with bitterness and loss, just waiting to die; he was an active man whose telephone rang at all hours, who had high hopes of living to see the regime fall, and breathing in the freedom for which he had waited for so long. — Khaled Khalifa


Set in Vietnam, Past and Present

green rice field in vietnam
Photo courtesy of Vivucamera/Shutterstock

The Best We Could Do - Thi Bui

With elegant, watercolor-washed ink illustrations and poignantly honest emotional beats, this memoir tells the story of one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to the United States.

The story begins in a maternity ward: a woman is giving birth to her son while her mother waits in the next room, reflecting on the impending birth of her grandson. It should be a joyous occasion. Instead, it’s marked by complicated emotions. And this book sets out to answer questions raised by this setup: Why is the grandmother the way she is? What effect does that have on the rest of the family?

We see their nighttime escape from Vietnam on a boat. Their arrival in Malaysia with almost nothing. Their emigration to the US, the country that recently — brutally — bombed their homeland.

During their dangerous, heart-rending adventures, this book does three things exceedingly well. First, it vividly evokes what it was like to be a Vietnamese person trapped in the ravages of the seemingly endless conflicts of the 20th century. Second, it illuminates the immigrant experience, the singular combination of hope and challenges inherent in settling in the US. And finally — perhaps most movingly — it tracks the way trauma can move like a wave through a family. {more}

panels from the illustrated book


panels from the illustrated book

The Mountains Sing — Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

The Mountains Sing
> Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

This stirring family saga — tracing four generations of a Vietnamese family — is told through the voices of two unforgettable women: Trần Diệu Lan, a grandmother hardened to burnished steel by the events of the 20th century, and her beloved granddaughter Hương, who’s coming of age during the Vietnam War.

Grandma believes that her life has been cursed by a fortune-teller’s prediction. How else to explain the tragedies that befall her over and over again? The French occupation, the Japanese invasion, the Great Hunger, the Land Reform. Trần Diệu Lan experienced them all and has the emotional scars to prove it. But she survived. And as the Vietnam War rages, Huong realizes that her grandmother and her stories are keeping Huong alive.

It’s these stories — and their impact on Grandma’s family of six children — that slowly unfold for us throughout this riveting narrative. We see the family torn apart by circumstance and choice, suddenly banished from their home, moneyless and friendless, lost to each other, and on opposite sides of the war.

Ultimately, this is a story of survival and love — a tribute to a woman, mother, grandmother who was determined to keep her family together, if not physically, then emotionally and spiritually. {more}

That night and for the next many nights, to dry my tears, Grandma opened the door of her childhood to me. Her stories scooped me up and delivered me to the hilltop of Nghệ An where I could fill my lungs with the fragrance of rice fields, sink my eyes into the Lam River, and become a green dot on the Trường Sơn mountain range. In her stories, I tasted the sweetness of sim berries on my tongue, felt grasshoppers kicking in my hands, and slept in a hammock under a sky woven by shimmering stars. — Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Top image courtesy of Annie Spratt/Unsplash.

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