What to read for Father’s Day? At this time of year, our thoughts naturally turn to some of the most poignant and affecting books we’ve read through the years about fathers and daughters. What about fathers and sons, you say? That’s a different matter, and a topic for another post. For now, we’ve scanned our bookshelves and our memories. And come up with a list of 17 of the best novels, non-fiction books and memoirs to read for Father’s Day that illuminate the lasting impact of relationships between fathers and daughters.
what to read for Father’s Day this year: novels, memoirs and other non-fiction books about fathers and daughters
What to read on or around Father’s Day this year to illuminate the relationships between fathers and daughters?
Dear reader, that’s a tough one.
If you yourself are a father, or a daughter, you know what we mean. The relationships between fathers and daughters can be simultaneously empowering and fraught – complicated, exuberant, distant, loving, painful.
Small wonder that so many brilliant novels and memoirs penned by women have been narratives about being a daughter with a difficult father. Or a departed father.
The weight of expectations, the longing for protection and guidance, the secrets, the care-giving, the struggle for independence – anger, devotion, disappointment, adoration and joy are all entangled in a way that only the best writers can illuminate.
This topic is particularly poignant for us this year because we lost two dear fathers in the past 12 months. It’s our first Father’s Day without them here to celebrate. In recent days in particular, we’ve been thinking a lot about legacy and the life lessons learned from these monumental figures in our lives.
Perhaps one of the books on this list will help you do that, too.
the best novels, memoirs and other non-fiction books about fathers and daughters
Here are our picks of 17 of the best books about the impact and legacy of relationships between fathers and daughters. Some are serious, others are sweet and a bit silly – but all provide moments of recognition, grace and insight for anyone who is a father or a daughter. Or for anyone who would like to understand what this most elemental of ties is really all about.
1. Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford.
We begin our list of the best books about fathers and daughters with a searing memoir. Through poverty, adolescence, and a fraught relationship with her mother, the author of Somebody’s Daughter wishes she could turn to her father for hope and encouragement. There’s just one problem, though: he’s incarcerated. Being a young Black girl in Indiana would be challenge enough – but Ford is also dealing with much more. How she ultimately finds her voice and her own identity separate from both her father and her mother is a moving and inspiring story.
2. Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs.
In Small Fry, the daughter of the late Steve Jobs shares a piercing portrait of a father-daughter relationship. In his daughter’s earliest years, Jobs was a mythical figure who was rarely present. As she grew older, though, he took an interest in her. She recounts that while his attention was thrilling, he could also be cold, critical and unpredictable. Like many daughters, she held out hope for years that Jobs would become the father she’d always wanted him to be. That he never did should not come as a surprise, yet somehow reading this account, we feel the pain and hurt as sharply as if it did.
3. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.
In the marvelously-written novel Goodbye, Vitamin, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town and arrives at her parents’ home in Silicon Valley in the throes of grieving over a broken engagement. There, she finds a startling and challenging situation. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory and is only erratically lucid. Ruth soon realizes that she’s losing him, just as she lost her fiancé. The relationships in this family are tender, witty and heartbreaking – this is one of those books about fathers and daughters that will stay with you long after this story comes to an end.
4. Made for Love by Alissa Nutting.
The premise of Made for Love is truly nutty (no pun on the author’s last name intended): in 2019, a 30-something woman flees the home she shares with her manipulative tech mogul billionaire husband, and lands in her elderly father’s trailer park in Florida. On the same day that his life-size blow-up sex doll arrives in the mail.
There’s also a subplot involving dolphins that is basically unprintable on a refined blog such as this one. Trust us: not only is this book smart, sharp and funny. It’s also a moving reflection on what we lose when technology advances past all imagining; on the nuances of love and disappointment between fathers and daughters; and on human desires that even AI cannot overcome.
If you need further convincing, you should know that this novel is the basis for a well-received new television series on HBO Max.
5. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent.
Sometimes books about fathers and daughters are about the damage a father can do. In My Absolute Darling, fourteen-year old Turtle has grown up isolated since the death of her mother, in the thrall of her tortured and charismatic father, Martin. Her childhood has been spent roaming the woods along the northern California coast. Then Turtle meets Jacob, a high-school boy who tells jokes and looks at her “as if she is the sunrise.” Turtle starts to imagine escape, using the very survival skills her father devoted himself to teaching her. What follows is a harrowing story of bravery and redemption.
6. All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg.
Sometimes when a person dies, it serves as a moment of rebirth for many of the people around them. And so it is in the wintry and brilliantly-written novel All This Could Be Yours, which happens to take place in a steamy hot summer in New Orleans.
The patriarch of a family lies dying in a hospital room. Swirling around him and criss-crossing the city are his soon-to-be-widow, his daughter and his daughter-in-law. His only son refuses to make the journey to keep watch. Through their eyes, we gradually begin to see the impact that a very bad man can have on his family for multiple generations. And how that family might begin to recover and rebuild once the weight of his cruelty is finally lifted.
Like the deep winter, this is a story of loss and sorrow. But even in the coldest depths, there’s warmth – and glimmers of hope.
7. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry.
Night Boat to Tangier is one of the most beautifully written, atmospheric and intelligent novels we’ve read in a long while. No surprise, as it was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review. In a desolate transit terminal on the coast of Spain, two middle-aged Irish gangsters anxiously await a passenger who may be arriving by boat from Northern Africa. Or perhaps she’s departing.
“She’s a small girl. She’s a pretty girl. Dilly Hearne is the girl’s name.” They repeat the refrain, plaintively, threateningly, sorrowfully, hopefully. She’s the daughter of one of these men. As they wait and wait, the two men recite and relive the consequences of their many sins. They’re broken in body and spirit. And yet, there’s still hope and fire in them. The prose is diamond-sharp and the atmosphere is tangibly misty and fogged with regret. This is a stunning read.
8. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi.
Ghana Must Go is a tale of immigration, family and the irresistible lure of home. In this debut novel, renowned surgeon Kweku Sai and his family have moved from Africa to the U.S. to accommodate his job. When he suddenly decamps for Ghana, leaving the family stranded in America, it falls to his wife Fola to raise their four children and help them come to terms with this profound abandonment. As Sai lays dying, the story moves between Accra, Lagos, London and New York as we learn what becomes of each of his children as a result of his unexplained departure. The lush prose and deeply-felt characterizations make for a truly lovely read about resilience, forgiveness and redemption.
9. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
In the novel Salvage the Bones, a hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Fourteen-year old Esch’s father is growing concerned about the weather. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three siblings have to face down natural and man-made disasters without much help. And yet this indomitable family of motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce, somehow pulls it together to face another day.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.
To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. These two novels – one a fiercely beloved icon of American literature starring a father and daughter, and the other a posthumously-published “sequel” that rips the sentiment away to show a much darker portrait. Which one is “right”? That’s your call. Read the first one to feel inspired and moved. Read the second if you want to mine a vein of paternal behavior and race relations in America that will not leave you with a warm glow – but that might be far closer to the truth.
11. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
In the novel The Descendants, protagonist Matthew King was once considered one of the most fortunate men in Hawaii. A royal descendant and one of the state’s largest landowners. But his luck has changed. His two daughters are out of control; his thrill-seeking wife lies in a coma after a boat-racing accident; and he learns that her lover is one of the few people who doesn’t know of her condition. Forced to examine what he owes not only to the living but to the dead, Matt takes to the road with his daughters to find the man with whom his wife seems to be in love – and to start the journey toward the next chapter in the family’s life. The film – starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley – was brilliant. You’ll love the book, too.
12. Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
In Autumn, one of the loveliest books about fathers and daughters, the Norwegian writer shares a collection of brief meditations that attempt to capture what makes the world beautiful, all written for his unborn daughter, his fourth child. “Now, as I write this, you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you… You will come to see it in your own way, you will experience things for yourself and live a life of your own, so of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.”
13. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a novel about the lengths we’d go to in order to protect our family. The book follows Loo and her father, the titular Samuel Hawley, as they settle into a provincial New England town. Not all is as it seems, however. Though Hawley is quiet, he has a dark past as a smuggler, and his decision to move is an attempt to escape ghosts of his former life of crime that are coming to haunt him. The novel tracks Samuel Hawley’s past (the 12 lives alluded to in the novel) alongside Hawley’s efforts to give Loo a normal childhood. He bears twelve scars from bullet wounds, each with their own story. Now his daughter, Loo, is asking questions about her mother’s mysterious death. As Samuel’s criminal past begins to spill into their present, the two must face a reckoning together.
14. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
The beloved novel A Wrinkle in Time, penned in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Meg’s classmate Calvin O’Keefe. They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government. At the core of their quest is Meg’s steadfast love and devotion to her father, who is willing to risk everything to protect his children. Even when he’s not at home, the mere memory of her father gives Meg the courage she needs in a bewildering and fast-changing world.
15. Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi.
Call Me Zebra is un-classifiable by most traditional measures – among books about fathers and daughters, it stands out for being truly original. It’s a novel about an orphaned young woman who was absolutely devoted to her father. And also about a family of refugees. The power of literature. And the incredible difficulties of romantic love. There’s a parrot, a trip to Barcelona, and a group of improbable roommates. Oh, and a corpse in a suitcase. Despite the crazy, this particular hero’s journey is funny, smart, sexy and memorable. In other words, its a really great read.
16. Creatures by Crissy van Meter.
The milieu for the wonderful novel Creatures is the fictional Winter Island, off the coast of Southern California. Life there is governed by the weather, the tides, and the rhythms of sea creatures, animals and plants. We first meet 20-something Evie on the eve of her wedding, when her estranged mother turns up uninvited.
From there we move backward and forward in time, learning the story of the intense bond between Evie and her ramshackle father, who for a brief time made real money selling Winter Wonderland, a famous stain of weed grown only on the island. He’s loving, and also a mess – alcoholic, volatile and undependable. The sections of the story that illuminate this father-daughter relationship are among the strongest we’ve read anywhere. But this tale is full of satisfying surprises – brilliantly and quietly done, this is one of the best new books we’ve read so far this year.
17. Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley.
To end our list of the best novels, memoirs and other non-fiction books to read right for Father’s Day about the relationships between fathers and daughters, we head to London. The novel Hot Stew is set in SoHo, and is ostensibly about a ruthless young woman who is determined to raze an old building in the neighborhood so she can redevelop it with luxury condominiums. Standing in her way are two smart and savvy prostitutes who have no wish to relocate.
Underneath the rapier-sharp satire about the rich and immoral of our age, though, beats the heart of a story about a father and a daughter – two pairs of them, actually. And how even in his absence, a father’s choices can determine the very essence of his daughter’s soul.
the best novels, memoirs and other non-fiction books about fathers and daughters
What to read on Father’s Day this year? Well, dear reader, those are our top picks for novels, memoirs and other non-fiction books about the relationships between fathers and daughters. What’s your favorite? And what did we miss? Happy Father’s Day, all.