I started watching This Is Us on a sleepless Saturday night, mostly unaware of the premise, not really knowing what to expect apart from a temporary distraction. I had finished watching the two seasons that were available back then by Monday morning, and though my eyes had never been as tired from sleeplessness, fatigue induced by staring at the screen, and intermittent weeping, my heart was full and I was feeling a little less lonely. Before then, if someone had told me that my passionate love affair with epic intergenerational family sagas would be extended to a TV show, I would not have believed them. But this show, despite being about a rather affluent American family, has a poetic universality that says this, indeed, is all of us.
Traveling seamlessly between the past and the present, and across the points of view of different characters, it explores the very human emotions of love and grief. The show does not shy away from difficult conversations, and the latest season even incorporates the pandemic and the recent political unrest in the USA into the storyline. There is so much heart in the story that even when I do not approve of some of the finer plot points in an episode, I would still be sniffling by the end of it — the stellar performances of the actors and the soulful music often turning this into a full-blown sob fest. The show is currently in its fifth season, and the weekly wait between the episodes sometimes seem too much. Here are a few books like This Is Us, that would keep those tender feelings alive in between episodes or seasons.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Funnily enough, the first book I thought about in this context is not exactly a family saga. But the many points of view in the book, the beautiful interconnectedness between the lives of the characters, the warmth and love shared by friends who become family, between mothers and daughters and between romantic partners evoke similar fuzzy feelings. Randall’s struggles with his identity and his history are also reflected in the stories of multiple characters in the book.
All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy
A central theme in This Is Us is the interplay of the past and the present, and the characters’ quest to understand the choices that their parents made, which ended up shaping their lives and their selves. All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy is narrated by Myshkin, a horticulturist in his 60s, who reminisces about his mother. Myshkin’s mother, Gayatri, had left him and his father when he was 9, for a different life in a different country. As the older Myshkin unearths stories from his mother’s adolescence, he tries to understand the choice that left his world topsy-turvy. The subtlety and empathy with which Gayatri’s life has been explored resonates with the tone of This Is Us, as does the heartbreaking role that fate plays in the story.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is a memoir written by the Indian American neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Kalanithi after being diagnosed with lung cancer. The book, published posthumously, is a profound take on life and death and on the role of family as an indispensable support system. The poignant prose will remind you of the tenderness and maturity with which This Is Us deals with death, loss and grief. And, like the best episodes of the show — it will make you cry your heart out.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is a family saga set in Korea and Japan, spanning a long period starting in the early 20th century. It is a story of displacement, resilience, hope, and identity — and the strength of the familial love that carries us through all of it.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland is about two brothers who drift apart when they make very different choices for themselves. Tragedy melds their lives together in a way they could have never anticipated, and what follows is a beautifully written exploration of imperfect families.
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill By Abbi Waxman
The tone of this book is definitely feel-good, lot lighter than the others on the list. Bibliophile Nina Hill comes suddenly face to face with a family she never knew she had, and they slowly worm their way into each other’s lives in this delightful read. The book also contains an accurate, albeit incomplete, portrayal of Nina’s anxiety — an issue that we have seen Randall grapple with all his life.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
If the problems that seem to plague the Pearsons constantly seem too overwhelming in these confusing times, but you still long for some wholesome family comfort, go for this book about naturalist Gerald Durrell’s family’s stay in the Greek island of Corfu. It is a downright hilarious account of his eccentric family, the many animals that he brings home, their interesting neighbors and occasional house guests. You can follow it up with its sequels, which, along with My Family and Other Animals, comprise the Corfu Trilogy, and will definitely cheer you up after a session of This Is Us–induced weeping.