Multigenerational Novels Contain Multitudes

Rachel Ward as Meggie and Richard Chamberlain as Ralph in “The Thorn Birds” miniseries.

When I think of sweeping, two things come to mind: brooms, and multigenerational novels in which a number of decades pass.

Many of those literary works are ambitious, impressive, and poignant. Characters grow older, many good and bad things happen, we see how similar or different their children and grandchildren turn out to be, we see those family members interact, we see settings change as characters relocate, we see societal and cultural norms shift, etc.

All of which can be challenging for authors — who obviously have to do lots of research, thread real-life events into story lines, juggle many characters, make those characters speak differently at different ages and during different eras, and so on. When novelists pull all that off, it’s a thing to behold.

I beheld The Thorn Birds last week, and found that novel riveting and often heartbreaking. Among the most memorable things about Colleen McCullough’s book was the way she took her characters from 1915 to 1969 and from New Zealand to Australia to Europe — mixing in then-current events along the way. But the most fascinating element was seeing Meggie Cleary depicted as a kid, then as a teen, then as a young adult, and then as a middle-aged woman — including her interactions with her parents, her many brothers, her two out-of-the-ordinary children, and her nasty, conniving, ultra-rich aunt. Plus Meggie’s compelling, complicated relationship with charismatic priest Ralph de Bricassart. 

Other multigenerational novels of note?

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden covers a time span from roughly America’s Civil War to the end of World War I. Parts of the book are semi-autobiographical, with a young Steinbeck himself even making a cameo. The novel might not be quite as famous as The Grapes of Wrath, but in some ways is even more ambitious — certainly occupying a much longer stretch of years than Steinbeck’s 1930s-set tale of the Joad family.

Even more ambitious is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which chronicles SEVEN generations of the Buendia family amid much magical realism. Here, the book’s title obviously provides a sense of the story’s decades-long scope.

While One Hundred Years of Solitude is mostly set in one place, many other multigenerational novels take readers to far-flung locales — with immigration often an element. For instance, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex starts in 1922 near the border of Greece and Turkey with the grandparents of protagonist Cal/Calliope before things eventually move to the U.S. and Michigan. There, the novel’s story of complex gender identity unfolds.

In many cases, it requires a series of novels for a multigenerational saga to be chronicled. One example is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, the first of which begins the time-travel love story of 20th-century nurse (later doctor) Claire and 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie. Eventually, their daughter and grandchildren are among those added to the family/extended-family mix. 

Your favorite multigenerational novels and series that take place over a number of decades?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town being a welcoming place for LGBTQ people — is here.

141 thoughts on “Multigenerational Novels Contain Multitudes

  1. Very thought-provoking post, as usual! My favourite multi-generational novel is definitely Portuguese classic The Maias by Eca de Queiroz, a true literary beauty. Others I have read and enjoyed include Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (four generations) and probably Brontë’s Wuthering Heights may also count.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Diana, for those three mentions! I’ve read “Wuthering Heights” (definitely multigenerational) but not the other two. They both sound excellent! (Also just googled them.) Not sure if I’ve ever read a novel by a Portuguese author. Will keep your suggestions in mind!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think these have been mentioned:

    1) Tolkein’s Middle Earth books. At least two generations of furry-footed short fellows figure in, and the enmities and alliances among all the inhabitants of ME originate in ages past.

    2) Though the means of extending the family lines are unconventional, even demonic, Ann Rice’s vampire books go all the way back to ancient Egypt and up to the present day.

    3) IB Singer’s “The Family Moskat”, which, if memory serves, covers at least two generations of two families in pre-war Poland, some members engaging in secular pursuits, some hewing to a more traditional life centered on religion, culminating in the German bombing of Warsaw in 1939. The book’s closing line is among my favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, jhNY! Four great mentions!

        The combination of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” is definitely multigenerational — and epic, of course.

        And, yes, time-traveling/time-hopping/incredibly long life spans/etc. can make for storytelling across countless generations. Nice stretching of this theme!

        I’ve read I.B. Singer’s terrific short stories, but have yet to get to one of his novels. Hope to remedy that at some point. 🙂

        Like

  3. Thank you for following my blog Dave. I was going to follow yours yesterday because I really enjoyed this post but I started reading through the discussion on it and you all sound so intellectual I was reluctant to have you check out my little blog. 🙄

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not sure if Roots by Alex Haley has been mentioned, but talking trash, I have my order in for Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of Mistress of the Dark by Cassandra Peterson. Not sure how its selling thus far, but yeah, how could it not be a little trashy, ha! Susi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susi!

      “Roots” is a terrific mention! I read it many years ago, and it indeed includes a compelling multigenerational element (as does the riveting TV miniseries and TV miniseries sequel).

      Ha! 🙂 Now THAT (“Yours Cruelly…”) sounds like a memorable memoir!!!

      Like

  5. I love these epic multi generational stories.
    I did read 100 Years of Solitude in the 1980’s. Excellent!!!
    Thinking back…. to when I read a lot more, I thought of The Good Earth – by Pear S. Buck.
    I also (lol) thought of The Carpetbaggers – Harold Robbins. I looked it up to see if I was remembering correctly. I found this on Goodreads.
    “While most of his novels have been rich, possibly even overripe, with multi-generational material (“The Carpetbaggers” had enough back story to fill two movies)”

    Thanks Dave!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Resa!

      Great that you’ve read “One Hundred Years of Solitude”! I was late to the party, not getting to it until maybe seven (?) years ago. Ninety-three years less than the title…

      “The Good Earth” is a terrific mention!

      Harold Robbins? His work definitely has sort of a trashy reputation, but… I haven’t read any of his books but did see him once in a New York City restaurant during the 1980s — for whatever that’s worth. Not much, I know. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah, Harold Robbins is right up there with Jackie Collins, “Queen of Trash”. So, I guess he’s “King of Trash”.
        Nonetheless, their books sold millions. Jackie – over 500 million -& translated into over 40 languages. Harold – over 750 million copies in 32 languages.

        My mom’s secret closet stash of books was filled with Harold Robbins & lots of other trash. LOL. So much fun stealing a book, reading it and putting it back.
        My mom would have been thrilled to know you saw Harold Robbins. She would want to know all about it, even if there is nothing to know. 😀

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ha, Resa! 😂 Yes, “King of Trash,” at least from what I’ve heard. But, as the sales figures you cited indicate, trash can of course often sell spectacularly well — when it comes to books or other things. Heck, if it’s entertaining, why not? It’s better to read certain kinds of novels than no novels at all.

          Loved your memory of your mother and you re Harold Robbins’ books! All I can recall of my sighting of him was that it was in Greenwich Village and that a friend I was with exclaimed, “That’s f*@#in’ Harold Robbins!” 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I just read “East of Eden” for the first time last year and really loved it. But of course Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors so I knew I would. A novel that fits perfectly into this category, and one I think you might enjoy, is “the Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. A multi-generational look at the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective – its roots in WWII, the decades of fighting and bloodshed, and the tense aftermath. It was one of my top 10 reads last year and I really recommend it. A lengthy book but worth it. JoJo Moyes “Last Letter from your Lover” would also fit nicely into this category. I just read it earlier this year and have yet to watch the Netflix adaptation, but I really should!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      “East of Eden” is indeed a compelling blockbuster of a novel.

      “The Mountains Sing” does sound VERY interesting, and great that it’s told from a Vietnamese perspective! So many books about Vietnam and the Vietnam War are filtered through an American lens.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Dave, I am not absolutely sure if Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” which basically covers two aristocratic Russian families (plus tons of other things) from 1805 thru 1820 qualifies as a multigenerational novel. Even though this is the king of epic novels the time span seems relatively short for a novel in this genre.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Tony!

      Yes, some novels can be absolutely epic (like “War and Peace”) yet not cover many decades. Another example would be George Eliot’s monumental “Middlemarch,” which basically takes place over only three years.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for the comment, Tony!

        I agree that George Eliot’s writing can feel a bit old-fashioned, but I find it very compelling. Memorable characters and absorbing plots, too. “Daniel Deronda,” “The Mill on the Floss,” and the aforementioned “Middlemarch” are terrific longer novels. That said, we all have different literary likes and dislikes. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have a hard time reading George Eliot, she had a stiff, dense, old fashioned prose style even compared to Victorian novelists such as Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, and Hardy. The only George Eliot novel I was able to finish was “Silas Marner” and that was because I had to read it in high school.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Philip! That’s an enthusiastic recommendation! When I just googled the series, I saw that “Only Time Will Tell” is the first book. Will see if my local library has it when I visit again sometime this fall. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  8. A wonderful subject again, Dave! There is something epic about multi-generational novels, and I certainly enjoy the genre. I immediately thought of Nino Haratischwili’s The Eighth Life, which I read at the beginning of the pandemic. The novel spans eight generations of the Georgian (Georgia in the Caucasus) Jashi family, starting around the Russian Revolution and finishing a hundred years later. The story follows the female line of the family. Haratischwili clearly loves to tell stories and reading this book you feel like a member of the Jashi family yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Big, fat multi-generational novel certainly describes And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer. It takes place in a fictional Ohio town and covers the period from 1868 to 1932, focussing on two women who age and eventually die in the course of the novel. Not a fast, racy read, but I found it quite interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I’m so glad you liked The Thornbirds”, Dave! The book was so heartbreaking and riveting. I became quite fond of the characters and grieved at their loss. Rachel Ward was the only actor who fell short in the mini-series (in my opinion).

    The Shell Seekers also has that sweeping feel and I was saddened to get to the end.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Sarah alreday mentioned the generational novel archetype: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. It would be the novel he’s most famous for. It’s too long since I read it (in German, in a pre World War II edition in Gothic script, still sitting in my library) to be able to proffer much detail, but I do recall that it was in my top 10 of best novels ever written.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Dingenom Potter! Wow — “Buddenbrooks” being one of your top-10 novels is a very high recommendation! And nice that you read it in the original German! I need to try Thomas Mann’s work (never have). Just looked at his bio on Wikipedia, and wonderful to see he was an anti-fascist.

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Great post Dave, especially as these great doorstopper sagas are in shorter supply these days. Rebecca is so right re Wuthering Heights. The various screen adaptations concentrate so heavily on the meat and heat that you forget the second half, second generation half of the book but the dynamic in the first half sets it up. So? Other multi-generational books? Well you’ve got The Thorn Birds and Est of Eden as well As Grapes of Wrath. I can’t remember much about it now but I do remember reading Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance and some of the books in the series years back and it was certainly multi generational. I also read and really liked —although it is quite dated now, Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, James! GREAT mention! Michener was definitely a master of the multi-generational saga. Unfortunately, I’ve so far only read three of his novels — one large saga (“Mexico”) and two of his shorter novels (“Tales of the South Pacific” and “Caravans”).

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I’m sure there are going to be some tremendous suggestions about multigenerational novels this week!

    I’m going to offer Buddenbrooks by Tomas Mann which covers 4 generations of a family in north Germany as the decline of their fortune with each generation.

    I’m also going to suggest an antipodean author – Martin Boyd, who was Anglo-Australian and wrote a number of novels about family and memory and so on. The one that I’m thinking is particularly fitting for this week is The Cardboard Crown which is about someone’s life that’s pieced together through diary entries and family recollections.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! I’m looking forward to the suggestions, too!

      Sounds like “Buddenbrooks” and “The Cardboard Crown” really fit this theme. Did you like those two books?

      Just googled Thomas Mann’s novel and it seems it was published when the author was only 26. Impressive!

      Liked by 4 people

      • Buddenbrooks I need to go back to if I’m honest although I did enjoy it. I think I’ve got a better understanding of his writing now – sometimes it takes a couple of attempts (for me anyway!).
        Martin Boyd was a good read funnily enough. He deals with some excellent themes such as memory and nostalgia and dysfunctional families!! He wrote very much from personal experience and is perhaps an author I might go back to at some point. It’s not often I read Australian authors!

        Liked by 3 people

        • I appreciate the reply, Sarah! I’ve greatly enjoyed the work of several Australian novelists: Colleen McCullough, of course — as well as Liane Moriarty, among others. I’ll see if my local library has anything by Martin Boyd.

          Liked by 3 people

          • I’m currently on a train in the Scottish Highlands – so apologies if this comes through more than once – connection is shocking!! I’ve read Liane Moriarty although not a big fan. In fact not really my kind of book. I do remember The Thornbirds being on TV (although too young to watch). I recall it causing quite a stir! Do let me know if you find any Martin Boyd. ‘Lucinda Brayford’ is one of his that he’s renowned for. I think it might have been serialised for the radio or something..?

            Liked by 3 people

    • I am delighted that you read “The Thorn Birds” Dave. It was not an easy read for me, which relates to the timing when I read it. I was in my 20’s and was first introduced to The Thorn Birds through the Reader’s Digest’s abridged books. Remember those books? Anyway, that led to the unabridged version and to the mini-series with a stellar cast that brought the narrative to life. A reading journey is an iteration and an evolution in our personal lives. I recall reading this through the lens of a twenty-something when I was more critical of what I perceived as ridiculous decisions and unbelievable selfishness and nastiness of the characters. Now, that I have lived a few more decades, I can see the remarkable ability of Colleen McCullough to bring out all sides of the human experience – many of our decisions will not be optimum and we all have a bit of selfishness within us. And as you said so brilliantly, to lead characters through the years and develop them within an ever changing social environment is a monumental task.

      I just read “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish which is not a multigenerational in the sense you discuss in this post but there is a time span. The story is set in London of the 1660s and of the early 21 century. Two women of remarkable intellect come together. I believe that this will be my “book” of 2021. I also read and thoroughly enjoyed “The Light Keeper’s Daughter by Jean E Pendziwol, a Canadian author who weaves a story affecting family, identity and art that involves a decades-old mystery. And of course, I reread Wuthering Heights, another multigenerational epic.

      Thank you, Dave for another wonderful post – I’ll be back to read the discussion.

      Liked by 6 people

      • Thank you, Rebecca! Many great thoughts in your comment!

        “The Thorn Birds” is not the easiest of reads at any age — it’s long, and contains a lot of heartbreak. But there are “up” moments as well, and the novel is SO compelling. Definitely a page-turner. True that there are some occurrences that seem far-fetched, and a good amount of dumb, greedy, off-putting behavior. But, as you allude to, that’s life — though of course a novel is often life on steroids…more dramatic than real life.

        I’ve never seen the mini-series, but apparently it was VERY popular. Stellar cast, too.

        And thank you for the mentions of those three other books! You’re absolutely right that “Wuthering Heights” has a strong multigenerational aspect.

        Liked by 2 people

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