Family Stories: Alternatives for Load-Bearing Clichés

Laurie Frankel

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 187.

When I set out to write my new novel—Family Family, published this month by Henry Holt—I started with a very simple goal: Write about adoption. But make it non-tragic. But make it non-boring.

And just that quickly, this goal proved to be not simple at all.

As so often happens when I decide, usually smugly, to write against the grain, I quickly discovered that the clichés and timeworn tropes are load-bearing. Hackneyed though they may be, they provide readymade support and structure to the story. Getting rid of them is a worthy goal, but then we have to find a replacement, which is difficult but requisite: How else can we hold up the roof?

Wherever you locate literature’s origins—Sophocles? Homer? Fairy tales? Ancient religious texts? Folklore the world over?—the stories humans tell have always been full of adoptive families: orphans seeking parents, parents raising children to whom they are not blood related, small units we call families who share everything but genetics. Adoptive families lack not for literary representation.

But that representation—also from the origins of literature—is pretty relentlessly terrible. Cinderella’s stepmother subjugates her because she’s not actually her mother. Moses gets sent away by his birth family and adopted only because the other option is death. And let’s not even talk about what Oedipus suffers on account of being raised by adoptive parents instead of his birth ones.

We see negative portrayals of adoption across the board—in classic as well as contemporary literature, in books for kids as well as books for adults, in plays and television and movies, in documentaries and fantasy and horror, in superhero stories (like, most superhero stories). Sometimes the trauma of adoption is central to the narrative: The story is about a child raised by adoptive parents who abuse her, say, or a birth mother who travels the world searching for the child torn from her grasp, or adoptive parents struggling to love children who aren’t really theirs. Sometimes adoption is merely thrown off as a plot point or a bit of lazy character development: the reason the bad guy is so bad (he’s adopted!), the reason the mother is so cold (she’s an adoptive mom, not a real one!), or the reason the druggie is addicted (placing her child for adoption broke her forever!).

It’s not that there aren’t people who have horrible adoption experiences. Of course there are. It’s not that there aren’t people who go into adoptions wishing they didn’t have to. Of course that’s true too. The problem is that these stories aren’t the only ones. It’s important for us to talk about negative systems and negative experiences and negative feelings and the reasons for them. But it’s just as important that that’s not all we talk about.

There are all kinds of reasons the conversation surrounding adoption is so narrow, many of them offensive. You know who says families only count if they look a certain way? You know who says families are only strong or good for children if they’re made up of certain relationships? People whose agenda is antigay. People who imagine pure bloodlines they don’t want diluted. People whose message is that good and desirable women stay home to raise children and serve husbands.

But as I waded into my first draft of Family Family, I realized that in addition to these infuriating reasons, there was another kind of rationale entirely. A less offensive but more insidious reason portraits of adoption in literature are so narrow and negative has nothing to do with the constraints of family. It has to do with the constraints of narrative. Happy families may all be alike, but they don’t turn pages. Or to put it another way: Stories need plot. They need a beginning, a middle, and an end—characters who at first are ignorant then learn, struggle with flaws then rise above, encounter obstacles then surmount them. Stories need conflict to resolve, unknowns to reveal, wrinkles to iron out. Nuance if possible. 

My own kid is adopted, and I loved her to my toes before I even got her home. Love like that is great for babies, but boring for stories about them. At least one reason it takes adopted characters in novels 350 pages to find belonging is, if they have it to begin with, that makes for a very short book. If birth mothers don’t spend chapter after chapter mourning children they lost to adoption, there’s not enough room for them to grow as characters. If adoptive parents don’t struggle with infertility, then painfully settle for adoption, then slowly learn that that’s also a worthy option, the narrative arc is too flat to turn pages. So much of the strife that typifies adoption literature stems from the fact that literature needs strife.

Adoption is also an awfully good metaphor. You know who sometimes feel like they don’t belong? Adopted people. Also every other person who has ever lived on this planet. Everyone has crises of identity. Everyone questions the received wisdom of their parents. Everyone wonders where they came from and who they really are and how they’ll figure out where they’re going. Everyone experiences loss and walks around with holes it’s the work of a lifetime to fill. Everyone looks at their family sometimes and thinks, “Who the hell are these people, and what could they possibly have to do with me?” Which means if you want to write about feeling lost or alone or at sea, about missing something or searching for something or being different or wanting more—i.e. the human condition—adoption is a really good way to do it.

And so I found my simple remit—a non-tragic, non-boring story of adoption—surprisingly difficult to locate. I knew going in I wouldn’t write a tragedy about adoption. I knew I wouldn’t write a tragedy narrowly averted either, or a family who experiences hardship for four-fifths of a book then learns to love, or characters whose sadness surrounding adoption is the inevitable bit and their finding happiness, after all, is the surprise. But then I had to figure out what to write instead. What else could occasion an adoptive family’s learning and growth? How else to keep readers engaged and seen and learning about the world and turning pages? How to honor what’s hard about adoption while also honoring what’s wonderful while also honoring what’s ordinary?

It sounds impossible, remarking on what you want to insist is unremarkable. But at its core, it seems to me, this is what literature does. It reveals either what’s wondrous in the everyday or, alternatively, what’s common and shared in the extraordinary. It took three-and-a-half years, throwing out one timeline entirely and rewriting it from scratch, and a truly countless number of drafts before I figured out what worked. It turned out I needed not to tell one non-tragic, non-boring story but lots of them, not to depict a different kind of adoption but as many different kinds of adoption as I had room for, not to raise one different voice but a polyphony. Or maybe a medley. Family Family harmonizes a range of adoption notes and chords, bringing into tune an array of perspectives and reasons for adopting among the book’s characters. The end run around the clichés proved not to be a different kind of adoption story but many differing stories braided together.

What’s surprising is how long it took me to come to this solution. More stories and more diverse stories and more positive diverse stories are what we need under any circumstances. Exposure to lots of narratives helps us to identify our unexamined assumptions, then examine them—which is pretty much the reason we read.

Sometimes there are really sad things about adoption. Sometimes adoption seems sad for sad reasons: the racism, sexism, and homophobia that so often fuel messaging about family. But when we look closely, we see that sometimes adoption seems sad because telling good stories is hard. It’s hard to write beyond the clichés because it’s hard to write without the clichés. Since the clichés are so often load-bearing for the story—and since we can’t build anything strong without structure and support—when we lose the clichés, we must look in unusual places for material to bolster the narrative.

So: Writing well about adoption is hard. But its being hard, I want to argue, is, in fact, good news. Telling stories—like being a member of a family, like being a member of a nontraditional family, like raising children no matter how much blood you share or don’t with them—should be hard. Work isn’t supposed to be easy. And the work here—reading critically, sharing our stories, changing the tropes and challenging the clichés, questioning what’s handed to us—is hard. But it’s also cause for celebration.


Laurie Frankel is the New York Times best-selling, award-winning author of five novels, including Family Family (Henry Holt, 2024). Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, and other publications. She is the recipient of the Washington State Book Award and the Endeavor Award. Her novels have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and been optioned for film and TV. A former college professor, she now writes full-time in Seattle, where she lives with her family and makes good soup.

Art: Sandy Millar