Every family is unique with their own story to tell. Some family narratives are heartening, others are heartbreaking — and, as you’ll see in the stories below, many more are both. We pulled together an enticing mix of memoirs about family that cover all the emotions.
10 Stirring Memoirs About Family
The roots run deep in these moving reads.
Growing Up Biden
By Valerie Biden Owens
Trailblazing political strategist Valerie Biden Owens invites us on an intimate tour of her remarkable life in her new memoir, from her early years growing up in a tight-knit Irish Catholic family in Delaware to the unbreakable bond she shares with her brother Joe and the leading role she’s played in his political career. Brimming with candor and warmth, Growing Up Biden captures the formative experiences that helped shape Biden Owens and her siblings into the strong, compassionate people they are today, and paints a full portrait of the triumphs and tragedies that mark their distinguished family. As a seasoned political strategist and one of the first female political campaign managers in United States history, Biden Owens has steered most of her brother’s campaigns, including Joe Biden’s seven straight U.S. Senate wins, and she played a crucial role in his successful run for the White House in 2020. Here, she opens up about her career and personal life, underscoring the importance of her faith and her family in every setback and victory she experienced.
By Mikel Jollett
Mikel Jollett knows how to express himself — he writes songs for his band, The Airborne Toxic Event, was an on-air columnist for NPR’s All Things Considered, and has seen his fiction published in McSweeney’s. He’s also the author of Hollywood Park, a New York Times bestselling memoir about his astonishing childhood and life. Jollett was born into an experimental commune in California that later became the Church of Synanon, one of the most dangerous cults in modern history. Jollett escaped with his mother and older brother, whereupon they endured poverty, emotional strife, and fallout from addiction. And yet, Jollett persevered, honing his voice and transforming into the author and artist he is today. Jollett recently told LitHub that he wrote his memoir from his perspective as a child: “I wanted a narrator who switched voices… who talked with animals and ghosts, who said things that are clearly not true, but you know they’re not true. Because that is what it means to live in the emotional world of a child.” It’s a powerful way to let the reader walk a mile in your shoes, especially when that journey is as challenging as Jollett’s. This is a decidedly unconventional story about togetherness and survival, told in riveting, colorful prose.
Here We Are
By Aarti Namdev Shahani
NPR correspondent Aarti Namdev Shahani shares her immigrant family’s reckoning with the American Dream in Here We Are. Originally from India, the Shahanis passed through Morocco before settling in Queens, New York. Their new life in the States had its fair share of challenges; Aarti’s parents worked long hours so Aarti could attend prep school in Manhattan. Yet it also held the promise of a bright and stable future. But the Shahani family’s dream transformed into a nightmare when Aarti’s father mistakenly sold goods to a drug cartel and soon found himself at the heart of a criminal investigation, compelling Shahani to plunge into America’s judicial system to save her family. Here We Are is a timely and poignant memoir about unbreakable family bonds and “a raw and engaging glimpse into the challenges immigrant families face" (BookPage).
By Erin French
Erin French is the owner and head chef of The Lost Kitchen, an international dining destination in Freedom, Maine. And in her inspiring food memoir, French takes us on her culinary voyage from washing dishes and waiting tables at her dad’s diner to opening a world-class restaurant. French also opens up about the struggles she faced, from the breakdown of a tumultuous relationship, which resulted in the loss of her restaurant and a bitter custody battle for her son, to her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. Throughout, French’s passion for cooking and radiant love for her child guided her through the darkness. Told with “extraordinary honesty and humor” (Ina Garten), Finding Freedom is a New York Times bestseller and a testament to the joys of cooking and keeping your loved ones close.
The Color of Water
By James McBride
Identity and family are so closely entwined that it’s often hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. For a young James McBride, however, these threads began to fray when he noticed that his light-skinned mother Ruth didn’t look like the other mothers in their solidly Black community – or even that much like him. In McBride’s #1 New York Times bestseller The Color of Water, the National Book Award-winning author channels his mother’s voice to recreate her heartbreaking story and delivers a moving meditation on life in a mixed-race family. Ruth McBride was a Jewish woman born in Poland who fled pogroms and endured a harsh upbringing in Virginia before settling in New York. There, she started a family with a Black minister and strove to provide for her children, remaining evasive about her own ethnicity and instead stressing that life’s true riches transcended race. Beautifully told, The Color of Water is an “unforgettable memoir [that] needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths” (Publishers Weekly).
The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
Growing up with one unpredictable parent is challenging enough; when both of them live life on the edge, the consequences can be overwhelming. Jeannette Walls paints a powerful, often disturbing, picture of her childhood in The Glass Castle. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children, yet that didn’t stop them from leading a freewheeling life of cross-country travel. Walls learned a lot from her father, Rex. When he was sober, his brilliance shined; he taught his children physics and geology. When he drank, however, he became destructive. Walls’ mother Rose Mary was a painter who bristled at the confines of domesticity. As a result, the author and her siblings often fended for themselves, parenting one another when their parents were absent. A #1 New York Times bestseller, The Glass Castle is a profoundly affecting family memoir that spotlights the resourcefulness and strength of a sibling bond.
The Liars’ Club
By Mary Karr
Honesty, black humor, unflinching detail. Mary Karr applies them all in her “lovely and harrowing” (The Dallas Morning News) bestselling memoir, The Liars’ Club. It was hard living for the Karr family in their rough-and-ready East Texas oil town. Abuse and addiction ran rampant. Young Mary and her sister had to contend with their caring but alcoholic father, their passionate yet unstable mother, and a cast of rowdy neighbors both kindly and menacing. The Liars’ Club is not easy reading; the author frankly discusses the sexual assault she suffered in her youth within its pages. And yet, Karr, a gifted storyteller and award-winning poet with an eye for razor-sharp detail, knows how to put the “comic” in “tragicomic.”
By By Alison Bechdel
In this critically acclaimed, award-winning graphic novel, Alison Bechdel crafts a striking portrait of belonging and identity, all set inside a family-run funeral home. The Bechdels may live under one roof, but they’re also strangers to one another. Emotions are hidden, feelings are bottled-up. Alison is drawn to her distant father; the pair share a love of literature, yet they’re unable, it seems, to be openly close. Years later, in college, Bechdel comes out as a lesbian, and then discovers that her father is also gay. Just a few weeks after this revelation, however, Bechdel’s father passes away, sending the author back on a quest to better understand the family she barely knew. Brilliantly told and vividly rendered, Fun Home is “graphic storytelling at its most profound” (Los Angeles Times).
Running with Scissors
By Augusten Burroughs
Alternately sad and comic, Augusten Burroughs’ bestselling Running with Scissors is a coming-of-age story about a childhood without rules. The author was 12 years old when his aspiring-poet mother sent him to be raised by her unorthodox therapist — at which point, young Augusten found himself in a rundown Victorian manor in Northampton, Massachusetts. His new living arrangement was unconventional, to say the least: patients doubled as roommates; Augusten was permitted to drink and smoke; prescription meds were readily available; and he and the other children played with an electroshock-therapy machine when they got bored. And that’s just scratching the surface of this “compulsively entertaining and tremendously provocative” (Publishers Weekly) bestseller. It’s worth noting that details of Burroughs’ account were disputed by members of his adoptive family. In 2005, they sued him for defamation. The case was settled out of court, adding yet another layer of drama to this over-the-top story.
On Gold Mountain
By Lisa See
Talk about a labor of love. Lisa See’s exhaustive research into her family history lasted over five years, spanned multiple continents, and involved interviewing just shy of 100 relatives. The result is an “astonishing” family memoir that’s “as engagingly readable as any novel” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). See brilliantly weaves together family lore with facts gleaned from the National Archives, producing a comprehensive account of her family’s odyssey across the decades. Sweeping in its scope and lovingly rendered, On Gold Mountain reveals the incredible places one can go when you explore your family tree.