Parent’s Worst Nightmare Books

I just started a new book (The Good Father by Noah Hawley), and as I’ve been reading it, I keep thinking, “Wow, this is every parent’s worst nightmare.” This is a common theme among a lot of memorable books I’ve read. Whether it’s kids disappearing, committing violent acts, becoming addicted to drugs, or losing themselves in sex or other destructive behavior, these plots have cropped up again and again in my reading.

Here are the ones that come to mind:

  • We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver – this is by far the pinnacle of Parent’s Worst Nightmare books, for lots of reasons. I probably think about this book once a day. (difficult son is school shooter)
  • Cost by Roxana Robinson (son addicted to heroin)
  • A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein and Trespass by Valerie Martin (sons get involved with “undesirable” women, often with destructive consequences for parents and their relationship)
  • Breaking Her Fall by Stephen Goodwin (daughter performs sex acts at high school party; father goes ballistic)
  • Goldengrove by Francine Prose (daughter drowns)
  • I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (daughter abducted)
  • Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, The Local News by Miriam Gershow, and The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond (disappearing kids)

These books are so disturbing that sometimes I wonder why I read them. They bring on all kinds of fears and anxiety. But they are also intense and deeply involving reads, which is of course why we read in the first place, right?

What are your Parent’s Worst Nightmare picks?


  • Sandra Schrut
    February 26, 2012 - 8:26 am | Permalink

    Parent’s Worst Nightmare:

    Daughter drives herself into the ground by undertaking too much.

  • Bruce Kneuer
    February 27, 2012 - 7:25 pm | Permalink


    Knowing my typical non-fiction habits and sensing some unease just in reading your summaries above, I’ll not likely read these works. But I would be interested to learn if, in the respective works, there are moments of redemption for a character or peace for others. After reading about what must be the suffering, is there anything to feel good about when you are done reading?



    • March 1, 2012 - 10:20 am | Permalink

      That’s a good question. Maybe for a few of the books, there is some redemption at the end, or at least a salvageable life/relationship. But for a few of them, sadly there isn’t. They end very badly. And I think the whole point of the story is whether those left behind are able to achieve peace about what happened.

  • Nancy Shohet West
    February 28, 2012 - 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Those and also “Testimony” by Anita Shreve – sympathizing not with the girl’s parents but with Rob’s and Silas’s. Oh, and “Every Last One” by Anna Quindlen.

    • March 1, 2012 - 10:18 am | Permalink

      Nancy, I thought about putting Testimony on the list. I can’t remember why I didn’t – maybe because I didn’t find it as memorable as the others.

  • February 29, 2012 - 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I just finished Defending Jacob. Definitely a parent;s worst nightmare book.

    • March 1, 2012 - 10:18 am | Permalink

      I’ve heard that Defending Jacob fits this genre!

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  • April 1, 2012 - 8:16 pm | Permalink

    The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard (child’s disappearance) and The Pact (teenager’s suicide) by Jodi Picoult come to mind. They really made an impact on me, although none of their other books ever seemed as good as those two. Before and After by Rosellen Brown is another one, about a teenage son accused of murder, and also The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty, about a daughter who kills a classmate in a car accident.
    These kinds of books are definitely hard to read as parents, but characters in crisis make for compelling fiction, I guess!

    • gayle
      April 1, 2012 - 9:44 pm | Permalink

      Those are good additions, Laurie! I totally agree about Before and After and The Deep End of the Ocean. I’ve never read Jodi Picoult before, but I did read another one by Laura Moriarty. I agree that they make for compelling fiction!

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