When I joined my partner in watching The Sopranos this spring (my first watch, a rewatch for him), I really didn’t know what I was in for. Sure, I’d heard about the show, but I thought it was just a mafia drama. Then these characters sucked me in (rude!). Their complicated personal lives, their moral and ethical dilemmas, the push and pull of their relationships — no wonder the show continues to be revisited 20+ years after it first aired. There are layers upon layers to dig into: gender performance and sexuality, the portrayal of Italian American culture, the consequences of and desensitization to violence, religion, generational trauma…I could go on and on. And inevitably, it got me thinking: What books like The Sopranos exist?
Which makes it a pretty interesting experiment to find read-alikes! While the show is, in many ways, singular, there are a lot of books like The Sopranos that take up similar themes, or channel similar vibes, and I can’t wait to dig into them with you. And while each of these books shares a different “something” with the show, they do tend to fall into two big categories: family stories (with crime) and crime stories (sometimes with family).
One last note: I tried and failed to find a book that captured a therapist/client relationship like Dr. Melfi and Tony’s, which is one of the juiciest aspects of the show for my money. Surely one must be out there? I continue to search.
It’s About Family
The Family Hightower by Brian Francis Slattery
What if you were Tony Soprano’s cousin, also named Tony Soprano, and subsequently got dragged into the family business? This international crime romp follows Peter Hightower, who has been mistaken for his small-time criminal cousin (both named after their grandfather). As he flees from his cousin’s extremely pissed off associates, he also uncovers layer after layer of family history. This was the first book I thought of when I started assembling this post; spanning generations, countries, and characters, it looks at the all-too-human choices we make for good and for ill, and what those choices can do to those around us.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
Imagine Meadow and AJ, grown with families of their own, coming together to try to process their childhoods; welcome to All This Could Be Yours. Victor Tuchman, criminal and horrible father and husband, is dying, and his wife Barbara has called her grown children to come to New Orleans to say goodbye. As the family gathers, each has to reckon with their complicated relationship to Victor, to each other, and how their family life has shaped them. Some want answers; some just want to get away from it all. Attenberg uses her sharp wit and her insight into the human condition to bring us deep into this dysfunctional family, permanently shaped by its patriarch’s charismatic and violent personality.
Content warnings: domestic violence, disordered eating
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Perhaps you love the intergenerational family shenanigans of The Sopranos, but could do with even more sympathetic characters and a touch of magic — this one’s for you. Johnny Ribkins is a 72-year-old burglar who owes his mob boss a lot of money, and only has one week to deliver. He ends up on a road trip across Florida with his teenage niece, both of them strangers to each other but tied together by the family legacy of supernatural talent. As they race against the clock and against the goons sent after Johnny, they also come to terms with each other and their family history; this one has a great balance of personal growth, complicated family, American history, and humor.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
If the two things you love most about The Sopranos are the dark sense of humor and Carmela’s struggles to reconcile her own faith and morality with her marriage to Tony, you must give this book about two sisters in Nigeria a read. Korede is the dutiful, responsible one; Ayoola, the golden child, also happens to have a lot of boyfriends who end up dead. But family comes first, and Korede has always been there for her sister; until, that is, the doctor Korede has had a crush on shows interest in Ayoola. How far is too far, and when does family not come first?
CW: child abuse, domestic violence
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
If Livia Soprano is your favorite but you wouldn’t mind if she was less of a narcissistic sociopath and more redeemable, and you’d like some magic with your family drama, let me introduce you to Orquídea Montoya. This complicated, brusque woman grew up in small-town Ecuador before she found her way to the United States, where she started a family. She gathers three generations of that family together and begins the revelation of a lifetime’s secrets — ones that will take her descendants on a strange, dark, and twisted journey before they find any answers.
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
This pick is for those who, like me, were rooting for the teenagers in the show to break free of the pull of the Cosa Nostra. Champ is a smart young man growing up in a neglected Black neighborhood in Portland, surrounded by drugs and crime and trying to take care of his mother and brothers. The choices he makes are ones of limited circumstances, and Jackson pulls no punches in showing exactly how a kid with a promising future can end up in over their heads. This is a raw, dazzlingly written meditation on gentrification, the War on Drugs, incarceration, and — yes — responsibility to family.
CW: drug abuse, violence against women and children
I Hadn’t Understood by Diego De Silva
There had to be at least one full-on “Italian crime in Italy” book on this list, and this is that book. Malinconico is a Neopolitan lawyer in name only with a crumbling family life and very little going for him when he’s assigned to defend a well-connected criminal. Doors start to open for him, but should he really be walking through them? This bumbling, possibly deluded, well-intentioned narrator takes us on a ride through the courts, the criminal underworld, and his own life.
The Price You Pay by Aiden Truhen
Perhaps you just really want a darkly comic violent free-for-all, full of characters who deserve exactly what they’re getting. Jack Price is a white-collar, upscale dealer of cocaine whose priority is keeping his head down. But then his downstairs neighbor is murdered and Price’s inner demons are unleashed; as he rains merry hell down upon anyone who tries to cross him, from underlings to professional assassins, we’re also treated to his musings on what morality and ethics really mean, anyway. Hilarious, bloody, and also the first in a series!
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
For those of you who are fascinated by learning about the different underworld scenes, and also going on a journey of personal discovery with the protagonist, allow me to introduce Virgil. He makes money beating people up; when the residents of Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota can’t get any help from the authorities, they turn to him. Then his nephew falls prey to tainted heroin, and Virgil goes on the road with his ex-girlfriend to find out who’s bringing the drugs onto the rez so he can make them stop. It all gets much more complicated, inevitably, and Virgil has to come to terms with both his own past and his Native heritage before everything’s said and done. He may not have a Dr. Melfi to help him, but his journey to understanding himself and his relationship with others has a real depth.
CW: violence against women and children including rape
Bonus: Justice For The Sex Workers
Uptown Thief by Aya de Leon
And last but not least, this pick is for the pole-dancers at the Bada Bing, the gumars, and all the other mostly nameless, voiceless women of The Sopranos. They deserve to have a say and triumphs of their own, and that’s exactly what Marisol Rivera is making happen for herself and others. On the one hand, she runs a women’s health clinic to help others like her, who survived abuse and disadvantages and need help starting over. On the other, she runs an escort service for the rich and powerful of NYC that allows her to fund her clinic, both over and under the table. After all, who could feel bad about relieving a jerkwad of a CEO of more of his dollars? This romantic suspense novel is full of action, steam, and women going toe-to-toe with the men who try to keep them down.
Need even more books like The Sopranos? If you’re a nonfiction fan, we’ve got a great round-up of memoirs about crime families. We’ve also got TBR, in which a bibliologist will search for exactly the thing you’re looking for! When you sign up, you can pick between recommendations-only (for those of you who just want to be pointed in the right direction) or hardcovers in the mail (if you love the satisfaction of opening a box). In the meantime, happy revisiting the world of The Sopranos.