By Anderson McKean and Page & Palette Bookstore
What do I love about reading family sagas? Everything. Especially during the summer, thick, multigenerational stories that you simply get lost in. These intricate, sprawling novels provide a window into the complicated anatomy of a family. And when an author is given the freedom to portray characters over years or even decades, they can subtly plant family mysteries and unveil flaws passed down from ancestors to descendants. These slowly unraveled secrets create juicy plot twists and expose truths about our own complex families. Here are a few of my favorite family sagas to savor this summer.
The Most Fun We Ever Had
by Claire Lombardo
Claire Lombardo’s impressive debut is touching, tender, and wise. I was wholly engrossed in the lives of David Sorenson, Marilyn Connolly, and their four daughters, a tight tribe who compete, resent, and love each other fiercely. With humor and humility, Lombardo captures the day today anxieties, revelations, and joys we face in every stage of parenthood. This remarkable family soaked into my pores; I felt each one of their triumphs and disappointments as if they were my own. Simply marvelous.
Ask Again, Yes
by Mary Beth Keane
A compelling, heartbreaking, yet hopeful novel. Mary Beth Keane is incredibly talented; she does not sugar coat, instead giving readers a compulsively readable family drama. I did not expect to become so completely engrossed in these characters, two families whose lives become inextricably linked by young love and personal tragedy. Their myriad of mistakes and attempts to atone beautifully demonstrates the power and grace found in forgiveness.
by Snowden Wright
A sweeping, multigenerational story that brings an unforgettable Southern family to life. Snowden Wright takes readers inside the narrative of the Foresters, founders of the world’s first soft drink company. The novel is both quintessentially Southern and American, capturing the essence of life in the Mississippi Delta and the pursuit of the American dream. Wright’s myriad of characters are beautifully crafted and hopelessly flawed as they search for their place in the Forester family history.
The Last Romantics
by Tara Conklin
Character driven and exquisitely written, The Last Romantics tells the story of four siblings and the ties that bind them. Conklin takes you into the vivid, not always pretty world that the Skinner siblings inhabit, sharing the moments seared forever from their childhood. Through the unforgettable voices of Caroline, Fiona, Renee and Joe, Conklin captures what we know, but often forget: families are perfectly imperfect. An engrossing, thought-provoking family saga that will linger with readers long after they finish the last page.
The Guest Book
by Sarah Blake
An exquisitely written, poignant family saga that illuminates the great divide, the gulf that separates the rich and poor, black and white, Protestant and Jew. Spanning three generations, bestselling author Sarah Blake deftly examines the life and legacy of one unforgettable family as they navigate the evolving social and political landscape from Crockett Island, their family retreat off the coast of Maine. Blake masterfully lays bare the memories and mistakes each generation makes while coming to terms with what it means to be “a Milton.
Q&A with Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake is the author of the novels Grange House and the New York Times bestseller The Postmistress. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, the poet Joshua Weiner, and two sons. Her latest novel, The Guest Book, is a beautifully written, powerful story examining the changing social and political landscape across three generations of one American family. Sarah took time out of her busy touring schedule to chat with PORTICO about the inspiration behind The Guest Book.
Q: The Guest Book, a multigenerational saga, is different from The Postmistress, a World War II novel. What led you to write The Guest Book?
I’ve always wanted to write a big, juicy family saga in the vein of Isabel Allende’s House of The Spirits, or Virginia Woolf’s The Years, or John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, and so I knew that’s where I was going after handing in The Postmistress. And, like those three, I wanted to tell the story of one family across a century and through generations and follow how their lives reflected the larger story of their country and its times. This was right around the time that Barack Obama gave his speech in Philadelphia in 2008 directly addressing race and the way in which the past was cuing the present moment. His remarks came to me both as an inspiration and a relief—a call to break the silences I’d grown up in around race. I wanted to interrogate my own family’s place in that silence: white, North-eastern, and old-moneyed. I was especially interested in exploring how the half-truths of family memory get passed down, creating the false myths families live by, and show how that is mirrored in the way this country “remembers” its collective racial past. If memory is the history we carry in our bodies, how do the layers of the past walk and talk inside us?
Q: Your novel is set off the coast of Maine on Crockett Island, a summer home where the family convenes each summer. Do you think it is important for families to have a place they return to year after year?
Places hold us in a way that often other people cannot; people forget, or their memory is distorted by their own experience. But when we return to a place, especially one that is shared by many generations, we are thrust back into all the layers of ourselves. The place remembers us: it sets the child we were walking alongside the person we are. And the cracks and overlaps between past and present are made real—realized, brought alive—by the place. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just literary gold. My imagination was trained in and by those cracks. I spent so much time as a child sitting around the table at my grandparents’ summer house, listening, watching how they spoke to us, to each other, of the world. And very early on, I understood the connection between that place and my family’s sense of its place in the world. The two reinforced each other. I understood how a family place can bind and define the family it belongs to, and saw the lengths a family might go to hold onto the vision of itself the place conveys. A place can hold both the false myth, and the true.
Q: As you follow the Milton family, your novel encapsulates the politics and racial tension that ebbed and flowed through the ‘30s, the ‘50s and today. Tell us about the research you conducted to capture these time periods.
All I knew when I began was that I wanted to set the novel in 1959, what I saw as a tipping point year, when the civil rights movement and the feminist movement were coming, but not yet fully on the surface of the culture, as I find the moments just before a historical moment of change to be the most interesting. So, as I usually do, I started reading both the history and the fiction of the time: Halberstam’s The Fifties, Nabokov’s Lolita, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Uris’ Exodus. I read John Cheever’s journals and short stories. And always, through all the years of the writing of this novel, I was reading James Baldwin, his essays and his novels.But meanwhile, as my characters were taking shape, it became more and more clear that the foundational generation—Ogden and Kitty Milton—and their time period needed to ground the novel. So I began to do the same kind of historical and cultural reading of the 1930s. And the connection between American investment and German industry—the uneasy bedfellows that made with the Nazis—began to seem more and more vital as both a point of history, what the 50s and the present rest on and repeat, and as a point of narrative.
Q: What is the last really great book you read? What books are on your bedside table?
Last great books: Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit. The Mere Wife, Maria Headley, As I Lay Dying, by WIlliam Faulkner, which I’d never read before!
On my bedsidetable: Having just finished Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, I can’t wait to dig into Jill Lepore’s These Truths. Also waiting there is Le Carre’s The Perfect Spy.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A spy novel, but one that (hopefully) subverts the genre while all at the same time keeping the delicious secrets.