When I moved to Los Angeles after graduating from college in 1998, I was relocating myself thousands of miles away from my oldest friends and nearest geographic relatives. While I got along with most of my family—and still do—I knew I wouldn’t be seeing the irreplaceable family and friends I grew up with more than couple times a year, my skimpy finances permitting. At the same time, I was hopeful I’d meet “my people,” as I knew already that my new city was populated with kind, creative, intelligent souls from all corners of the country, led like me to Los Angeles for its opportunities, its diversity, and, who am I kidding—its weather.
As I slowly met those who’d become my family of choice in California, I encountered a lot of people like me who were doing the same, for a variety of reasons, many with support from their relatives and others with disapproval or estrangement. Some were looking to bond over an occupation; some, within a subculture; some were just looking for nice people. We all flowed into the same city, intent to do something challenging and necessary.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve thought a lot about my family out here and where they came from, and I’ve thought about the kinds of stories that may have compelled us to make these journeys. If the point of most novels is, as I’ve been told, to let people know they’re not alone in the world, then these books below may represent the pinnacle of this intent. When I think of books that inspire people to seek out a family of choice, or give them strength as they begin to find one, these are some of the titles I’d consider indispensable.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Three people, from wildly different spots on the globe, assembled for the dream of a lifetime—the first peopled mission to Mars. The selected astronauts, a woman and two men, each with complex families and lives “back home,” will now, for an indeterminate length of time, only have each other for comfort, edification, and survival. Breaking down in beautiful detail what happens when an ambition creates a community unto itself, and the effects this has on both the aspirants and those they leave behind, makes this book an astonishing piece of work.
Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah
How do you reject a belief system when it’s all you’ve known, and to leave its congregation would mean saying goodbye to everyone you’ve ever met? That’s the central crisis at the heart of Scorah’s compelling new memoir, as events on a covert missionary trip to China compel her to consider leaving the Jehovah’s Witness sect she was raised in. In a country where her proselytizing is an illegal activity, Scorah comes to examine her religion, her marriage, and her life, and takes the first steps towards a once-impossible goal of creating a family of her own outside the church. Reckoning with years of incredible alienation, tragedy, and hope, this is a wonderful and complex story.
Interior States by Meghan O’Gieblyn
In this collection of personal essays, O’Gieblyn brilliantly and movingly reorients herself in a secular world after a fundamentalist Christian upbringing and education. Unlike Scorah, who was permanently evicted from her past, O’Gieblyn encounters and examines the lingering influence of her former beliefs, visiting fundamentalist tourist attractions with new eyes and weighing what lessons to retain from her strictly religious youth. A fascinating look inside the world of Midwest fundamentalist Christianity from a once-true believer as she seeks to define a new home for her heart and mind.
Bunny by Mona Awad
The setup is familiar: Samantha, who has only one apparent friend in college, is menaced and intrigued by a cohort of mean girls who call each other “Bunny.” Even though Samantha despises these awful girls in return, she can’t resist an invitation to a party at their place, which sets in motion a surreal chain of events that demonstrate how far someone may go to belong. Think Heathers meets The Secret History, but that doesn’t quite do this book justice. If there’s fairness in the world, this hilarious, dark, and brilliantly imaginative new book from Awad (13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl) will be one of breakout novels of the summer.
Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler
Like Howrey’s The Wanderers, this gorgeous, spellbinding novel has a setting that is unmistakably sci-fi, but similarly, its story is at its heart about people, and how their devotion to science affects and evolves their relationships. I consumed Swyler’s superb debut novel, The Book of Speculation, in one sitting. This story of a young girl unraveling the mysteries of her scientist father, and how the hopes and dreams of each of them literally change the world, is just as moving and powerful.
Black Card by Chris L. Terry
I love this book. Provocative, warm-hearted, and often hilarious, Black Card tells the story of a biracial punk rocker searching for his place in a largely white world. He’s come to feel that his sole black friend holds the key to his identity, and the pressure and expectations of this friendship come to a head in a community where racism takes countless subtle and overt forms. Terry is a remarkable writer, and Black Card oughta be on every summer reading list.
Movers & Shakers: Women Making Waves in Spirits, Beer, and Wine by Hope Ewing
This is a book I’ve truly been waiting for—the real stories of women who have become successful and influential in the contemporary world of alcoholic beverages. Whether a vintner, brewer, or distiller, to make it in those trades requires a lot of help, and the women mastering these fields—and forming women-only networking groups like the Pink Boots Society—are an obvious family of choice for generations to come. I would’ve loved to have this book as a touchstone and inspiration while researching The Lager Queen of Minnesota, but one doesn’t need more that the slightest knowledge of the field to be fascinated by these stories.
Magical Realism for Non-Believers by Anika Fajardo
What happens when the family you seek is your own? In this emotional, time-hopping, and interestingly structured memoir (I like books that are a series of brief chapters because I am incapable of writing them myself), Fajardo seeks to complete the story of her own origin. Her journey takes her to Colombia, a birth country she doesn’t remember, to reunite with her father, a man she never really knew. It’s a lovely and thoughtful story, brimming with the author’s conjectures on the family that might have been, and her wonder at the family that is.
We Came Here to Forget by Andrea Dunlop
The world of Olympic-level competitive sports has always seemed, to me, enveloped in a world of otherworldly discipline and sacrifice that borders on the occult. Dunlop not only tells the story of a skier who, through rigor and talent, joins this rarefied family, but who also experiences the alienating process of seeking out yet another place to belong after her career suddenly ends. Wonderfully researched and full of intrigue, secrets, and romance—including the best sex scene I’ve read in a long time—this is Dunlop’s best novel yet.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Set in Chicago amid the peak of the AIDS crisis and its aftermath, Makkai tells the story of a family of choice created out of love but assailed by betrayals, heartbreak, and incredible loss. Makkai’s tight-knit community of friends reckons with ignorance on all sides as they attempt to pursue liberty and happiness in a time and place they may not survive. It can’t help but make you think of the incalculable human toll our society’s homophobia has cost us. Part epic, part elegy, this book is a knockout.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include J. Ryan’s new novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, forthcoming July 23 from Viking/Pamela Dorman Books! And don’t miss our EIC, Marisa Siegel, in conversation with J. Ryan at The Center for Fiction on July 30! – Ed.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
Two sisters, one farm. A family is split when their father leaves their shared inheritance entirely to Helen, his younger daughter. Despite baking award-winning pies at the local nursing home, her older sister, Edith, struggles to make what most people would call a living. So she can’t help wondering what her life would have been like with even a portion of the farm money her sister kept for herself. With the proceeds from the farm, Helen builds one of the most successful light breweries in the country, and makes their company motto ubiquitous: “Drink lots. It’s Blotz.” Where Edith has a heart as big as Minnesota, Helen’s is as rigid as a steel keg. Yet one day, Helen will find she needs some help herself, and she could find a potential savior close to home… if it’s not too late. Meanwhile, Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, grows up knowing that the real world requires a tougher constitution than her grandmother possesses. She earns a shot at learning the IPA business from the ground up—will that change their fortunes forever, and perhaps reunite her splintered family?