The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
Sam and Henny Pollit have six young children (including Sam’s daughter Louisa from a previous marriage) and haven’t spoken in years. Instead, they communicate through written notes or through their brood. But if Sam won’t speak to his wife, he won’t shut up around his kids. Sam’s invented language, which lurches toward verbal abuse, is the heart and soul of this novel, and the most tremendous example of using a secret language in fiction that I know of — when it came time to write the Julia chapters in Love All, I revisited Stead’s novel to see how it could be done. Sam Pollit doesn’t hold back with his riffs and chords, and though the children speak their father’s language, only Sam is fluent. He uses it — by turns terrifyingly and hilariously — to keep his family in orbit around him.
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy declares in the first sentence of this novel that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way — then spends hundreds of pages blissfully showing us how. Levin loves Kitty, but Kitty loves Vronsky; Vronsky loves Anna Karenina, but Karenin won’t stand for it. From skating park to train station to horse race to bird-shoot, the characters in Anna Karenina chase one another across the page, miserably in love, in pursuit of happiness. Tolstoy’s capacity to manage multiple points of view within multiple families is astonishing. He even gives us Laska the dog.
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
Neither Captains Gus nor Call will tell young Newt who his father is, but they care for him as much as any father could. McMurtry redefines the meaning of family in this epic about the Hat Creek outfit’s long cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Brothers, fathers, wives, and sisters emerge from a haphazard group of cowhands, Texas Rangers, pioneers, and prostitutes. To my way of thinking, the friendships in Love All that Julia, Sam, and Carl have with one another are every bit as strong as family, and McMurtry’s novel is testament to the idea that family can arise from anywhere.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Mr. Lockwood senses the discord at Wuthering Heights the first time he visits his landlord’s estate, but he doesn’t know the half of it until the delightful Nelly Dean chimes in. This novel’s exterior world of stormy moors is only marginally less harsh than the interior worlds of the families inhabiting Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Generations of lost love and lovelessness make for great storytelling, and Mr. Lockwood and I are all ears.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor
The grandmother in this short story not only steers her family on a fruitless side trip to a plantation that turns out to have been in another state, she gets them all murdered by a killer on the loose from the federal pen. From the beginning of the family road trip to its horrific roadside conclusion, the grandmother’s constant stream of criticism, moralizing, and self-congratulation defeats her son, bores her grandchildren, temporarily engages the Misfit, and completely charms the reader. When I started writing Love All, I had this story in mind as proof of all that can go wrong when three generations of a family live together under one roof.