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Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena: FAQs + Books Like It

I love creepy psychological thrillers as much as the next person, but a good-old who-dun-it murder mystery will always be my number one. So, when I went to choose my next book from my to-be-read pile, I automatically reached for Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena. (Kindle | Paperback)


Now that I'm done, my hope is to answer any current or prospective readers' questions about it. Plus, if you liked Not a Happy Family, then you should find the list of five books like it helpful as you go to pick your next read. If that sounds like what you're looking for then keep scrolling. (Warning: This article contains spoilers)

Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena

What is the Book Not a Happy Family About?

Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena is a domestic thriller about three adult children suspected of murdering their wealthy parents. Here is the official description: "Brecken Hill in upstate New York is an expensive place to live. You have to be rich to have a house there. And they don't come much richer than Fred and Sheila Merton. But even all their money can't protect them when a killer comes to call. The Merton's are brutally murdered the night after an Easter Dinner with their three kids. Who, of course, are devastated - or are they? They stand to inherit millions and were never a happy family, thanks to their capricious father and neglectful mother. Did one of them snap after that dreadful evening? Or was it someone else that night who crept in with the worst of intentions? It must be. After all, if one of your siblings was a psychopath, you'd know. Wouldn't you?"


How Long Does It Take to Read Not a Happy Family?

According to How Long to Read It, it will take the average reader approximately 4 hours and 45 minutes to read Not a Happy Family.


Who Are the Main Characters in Not a Happy Family?

There is quite an extensive list of characters in Not a Happy Family to keep track of. To help you, here is a list of them and their relationships to one another:

  • Sheila Merton - Mother

  • Fred Merton - Father

  • Catherine Merton - Oldest child

  • Ted - Catherine's husband

  • Dan Merton - Middle child

  • Lisa - Dan's wife

  • Jenna Merton - Youngest child

  • Jake Brenner - Jenna's boyfriend

  • Irena Debrowski - Sheila and Fred's housekeeper, former nanny to Catherine, Dan, and Jenna

  • Audrey Stancik - Fred Merton’s sister, friends with Ellen

  • Ellen Cutter - Audrey's friend, Fred's former assistant, Rose's mother

  • Rose Cutter - Ellen's daughter, Catherine's friend, Fred's illegitimate daughter


Who Is the Killer in Not a Happy Family?

The killer in Not a Happy Family is Jenna Merton. She strangled her mother, Sheila Merton, and then proceeded to smother and stab her father, Fred Merton. The only explanation we get as to why Jenna killed her parents is that "she had been in a murderous mood when they left [easter dinner]." Presumably, because she had found out her father was going to change his will, thus leaving his sister with half of his estate and the other half to be split among his four children. Moreover, it was mentioned that Jenna had been violent with her siblings growing up, so one might think she was the one who inherited her father's anger and ability to kill after all.


What Happens at the End of Not a Happy Family?

At the end of Not a Happy Family, police confirm that Irena had been on the phone at home at the time of the murder, so she is released from jail. Before she leaves though, she tells police the kids all knew where she kept her extra set of keys so any one of them could have driven it that night. When the car is processed for evidence, a hair is found and DNA is taken from each of the three siblings, which confirms the hair belongs to Jenna. In an interrogation, she claims her hair was planted and is let go.


It is then revealed that Jenna killed her parents. She took the suit and booties from Dan's house, then snuck over to Irena's to steal her car. After committing both murders, she took her parents' cash, cards, and jewelry and buried them beneath a building where a concrete foundation was set to be poured the next day. It is also confirmed that she is the one who added the anti-freeze to Audrey's iced tea and tried to kill her.


In the epilogue, Catherine and Fred have had their baby and are living in the family home in Brecken Hill, while Dan is still the one many believe to be guilty of his parent's murder. Audrey continues to follow Jenna and in doing so, learns of the building she believes the evidence she needs to get Jenna arrested is buried under. A year later the building is put up for sale, so Audry uses the million dollars Fred left her to buy it.


Do Shari Lapena's Books Need to Be Read in Order?

No - you do not need to read Shari Lapena's books in order as they are all written as standalones. The characters and plots in her books do not overlap, which means you do not need to have read any of her other books before you read another. You can read them in any order of your choosing.


5 Books Like Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena

Looking for books like Not a Happy Family to read next? If so, here are five recommendations for similar domestic thriller books that are worth checking out next.


The Family Game by Catherine Steadman

1. The Family Game by Catherine Steadman

Think of Catherine Steadman's psychological thriller, The Family Game, as the unhinged version of Not a Happy Family. It had me on the edge of my seat from the get-go and unlike the arguably predictable ending of Not a Happy Family, the twists in this one will have you shocked. If that sounds up your alley, then just wait until you read the description: "Harry is a novelist on the brink of stardom; Edward, her husband-to-be, is seemingly perfect. In love and freshly engaged, their bliss is interrupted by the re-emergence of the Holbecks, Edward's rich and estranged family. Harriet is drawn to the glamour and sophistication of the Holbecks, who seem to welcome her with open arms, but everything changes when she meets Robert, the inescapably magnetic head of the family. At their first meeting, Robert slips Harry a cassette tape, revealing a shocking confession which sets the inevitable game in motion. As she ramps up her quest for the truth, she must endure the Holbecks’ savage Christmas traditions all the while knowing that losing this game could be deadly."


The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

2. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Mansion? Check. A large inheritance? Check. Intertwined families? Double check. While it sounds like I could be describing Not a Happy Family, I'm actually describing The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, another suspense-filled domestic thriller. Here's what it's about: "Soon after her 25th birthday, Libby Jones learns not only the identity of her birth parents but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion in London that's worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well - and she is on a collision course to meet them. 25 years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone."


A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham

3. A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham

When you've read as many domestic thrillers like Not a Happy Family as I have, they can all begin to blend together. One book that stands out to this day though is A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham. I was captivated by it from the moment I read the description and stayed like that long past I learned of the major plot twist at the end. Here's what it's about: "When Chloe Davis was twelve, six teenage girls went missing and her father was arrested as a serial killer. Now 20 years later, Chloe is a psychologist in private practice in Baton Rouge and getting ready for her wedding. She finally has a fragile grasp on the happiness she’s worked so hard to get. Sometimes, though, she feels as out of control of her own life as the troubled teens who are her patients. And then a local teenage girl goes missing, and then another, and that terrifying summer comes crashing back. Is she paranoid, and seeing parallels that aren't really there, or for the second time in her life, is she about to unmask a killer?"


My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

4. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Unlike in Not a Happy Family where we highly suspect one of the siblings to be guilty of murder, in My Sister, the Serial Killer, we know for certain the sister is a killer. After all, it's right there in the title. Here's what it's about: "Korede is bitter. Her sister, Ayoola, is the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola's third boyfriend in a row is dead. Korede's practicality is the sisters' saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her "missing" boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit. A kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works, is the bright spot in her life. She dreams of the day when he will realize they're perfect for each other. But one day Ayoola shows up to the hospital uninvited and he takes notice. When he asks Korede for Ayoola's phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and what she will do about it."


Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister

5. Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister

You might think Gillian McAllister's book, Wrong Place Wrong Time, is just another domestic thriller about parents and children but it's not. What makes it different is that it's told in reverse chronological order, which makes for a very interesting thriller. Here's what it's about exactly: "It is midnight on the morning of Halloween and Jen is anxiously waiting up for her 18-year-old son, Todd. As she watches through the window, she sees her son stab a total stranger. She doesn’t know who the victim is, or why Todd did it. After her son is taken into custody, Jen falls asleep in despair. But when she wakes up… it is yesterday. The murder has not happened yet—and there may be a chance to stop it. Each morning, when Jen wakes, she is further back in the past, first weeks, then years, before the murder. And Jen realizes that somewhere in the past lies the trigger for Todd’s terrible crime…and it is her mission to find it, and prevent it from taking place."

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