Literary Rashomon: 10 Novels with Rotating Perspectives


When a novel is written from rotating perspectives within a family, it creates a richness and depth in the narrative. As readers, we can see how different people in the same household interpret the same events, which illustrates both how subjective all our perspectives are and how misunderstandings can transpire. How do two children with the same parents and upbringing see their childhoods so differently? Why does a married couple fight over the things they do?

These stories also allow us to learn about the complex ecosystem of a family through its multiple subjects. Parents naturally have a different perspective than do their children. Generational conflicts arise and cultural values change. Hearing both (or multiple) sides of these clashes enables us to see the kaleidoscope of influences on a family.

Often, we need to hear from different characters in order to piece together the full story, particularly when it comes to understanding how the decisions of our ancestors affect us, and how events can ripple through our descendants’ lives.

Reading a novel that is masterfully written from the perspectives of multiple family members can feel like piecing together a puzzle that parallels the complex reality of life. These are some of my favorite novels, where the varied voices of family members together create richly layered stories. They share perspectives within marriages, through generations, across borders, and even into the future.

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The Poisonwood Bible - Kingsolver, Barbara

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

The story of a Christian missionary family who moves to Africa in the 1950s, Barbara Kingsolver’s wildly popular novel is the first I can recall reading from rotating perspectives. We learn about the family’s experience through the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist. Each woman holds a different part of the story, and slowly, we piece together the dramatic events that shape their lives in the years to come.

Gorgeous with lush setting details and suspenseful in its narrative, this novel is a modern classic for good reason.

Everything I Never Told You - Ng, Celeste

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s first novel is told through an omniscient narrator who dips into each family member’s perspective at various points after we learn, in the dramatic opening line, that “Lydia is dead.” Lydia is the youngest daughter, and the question of what happened to her fuels the narrative. Each of Lydia’s parents and remaining siblings shed light on the family’s dynamic and its history as the reader tries to solve this mystery.

The technique works particularly well to demonstrate how cultural differences and misinterpretations arise in this biracial family in 1970s Ohio.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy - Ford, Jamie

Jamie Ford, The Many Daughters of Afong Moy

Jamie Ford stretches this genre into the deep past and the unforeseen future with a tale of the descendants of the Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America. Here, the story is told by her daughters through multiple generations, and delves into the concept of inherited trauma.

The novel is a bit mind-bending with its futuristic elements, but Ford manages to weave this quite well into the historical origin story. A bold storytelling approach, and one that thoughtfully explores the ideas of what we pass down and what we inherit.

Fates and Furies - Groff, Lauren

Lauren Groff, Fates & Furies

Lauren Groff’s clever two-part novel shows us both sides of the glamorous couple, Lotto and Mathilde. The first part (“Fates”), from husband Lotto’s perspective, details how the couple met, their whirlwind romance, their artsy-bohemian life together in New York City, and his burgeoning career as a playwright. The story is richly drawn, particularly the psychological perspective of Lotto.

The second part (“Furies”), from wife Mathilde’s perspective, gives us an entirely different view of the characters, their actions, and the events of their life, ones the reader has already bought into. This is a cautionary tale that one never knows what’s going on in another person’s mind, life or marriage, despite appearances.

Malibu Rising - Jenkins Reid, Taylor

Taylor Jenkins Reid, Malibu Rising

Taylor Jenkins Reid is a master of creating authentically believable stories about celebrity figures who don’t exist. In her third novel, she takes a fictional 1950s crooner who was minor character in a previous novel (Evelyn Hugo), makes a cameo in another (Daisy Jones), and shows us his legacy in the form of his four children.

The Riva children, with varying levels of glamour, appear to have classic Southern California lifestyles, as professional surfers and swimsuit models. But they are far from caricatures; indeed, they’re fully drawn, complex and flawed human beings who give us insight into their lives, their relationships with one another, and how they’ve been impacted by their famous but absent father.

Infinite Country - Engel, Patricia

Patricia Engel, Infinite Country

In this slim and fast-paced volume, we hear the five voices of a family on both sides of a border. Mauro and Elena leave their native Colombia for a better life in America, and their three children are born as they journey between the two countries.

Traveling between past and present, between Bogota and Houston, between the parents and children’s perspectives, this powerful novel creates a reading experience that parallels the fractured nature of the family itself. A beautiful exploration of the pain borne of emigration, and the power of a family that risks everything to be reunited.

The Immortalists - Benjamin, Chloe

Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

The Immortalists begins with an intriguing premise: what if you knew the exact date of your death? The four siblings in this story learn this information from a mystic in 1960s New York, as burgeoning adolescents. This knowledge will affect each of them in different ways: the choices they make, the beliefs they hold, and their relationships with one another.

It’s interesting to cycle through each of their perspectives as they grapple with, disavow, or resign themselves to their ultimate fates.

The Vanishing Half: A GMA Book Club Pick (a Novel) - Bennett, Brit

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half

This multi-layered title refers to bi-racial identical twin sisters, born into a small black Louisiana community in the 1950s. At the age of sixteen, the sisters chart very different life courses, most notably in their racial identity. One sister passes for white, moves to California, and begins a new life in a segregated white community; the other continues to live in the place they both once called home.

The novel expertly weaves together the perspectives of both Vignes twins, and their children. It’s a powerful and insightful family story, rooted in the complex backdrop of racial identity in America.

Commonwealth - Patchett, Ann

Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

After a fateful kiss at a christening party in southern California, two marriages are dissolved, and their families broken. Over the next five decades, we follow the messy reattachments and connections between the four parents and six children involved.

The story is drawn somewhat episodically, but we learn of the overarching relationships, heartaches and regrets within this ecosystem of parents, stepparents, and stepsiblings. The different characters’ perspectives brilliantly illustrate how our truths are ultimately personal and subjective, and how the power of one’s story can be seized by others.

Home Fire - Shamsie, Kamila

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

An ambitious and thought-provoking novel, based on Sophocles’ Antigone (though readers will not lose anything if they’re not familiar with the classic work). Two Pakistani-British families struggle to make a home in their adoptive country, under the specter of anti-Muslim sentiment and haunted by the legacy of a family history with terrorism.

Told largely from the perspective of three siblings who play various roles to one another, this story is a fascinating dive into how radicalization can transpire.

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A Great Country - Gowda, Shilpi Somaya

A Great Country by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is available via William Morrow.



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