Plenty of kids had single-parent families; [Lily] knew that, just as she knew it wasn't the absence of a father, or even the smallness of their family […] that made them stand out. No, thought Lily irritably, it was the sheer peculiarity of the people in it that made her family not quite right. (1.4)
You know that old saying about the grass on the other side of the fence? This seems to be what's going on here. If Lily could look into the lives of the families she observes on her walk home from school, she'd probably see some pretty peculiar stuff in their houses as well. Part of her problem is that she can't look beyond her own frame of reference—to Lily, her family is the most bizarre bunch of people in the world, and the only one at that.
Jessaline felt her parents knew everything single thing she did before she did it. She felt they could read her mind. (4.15)
One big idea in this book is how young people are limited by the parents' expectations that they'll be just like them. Jessaline is a huge example—she's spent her whole life trying to please her parents, who are both professors and super-academics, and quite frankly, kind of seem like snobs. It's gotten to the point where they're kind of holding her hostage mentally.
Lily had been ten when she'd learned Nan had been brought up in a children's home, and for a long time, she'd kept waking up in the middle of the night, imagining what it might feel like to be all by yourself in the world […] To have no one. It made her own family, with all its faults and peculiarities, its bickerings and squabblings, seem rich by comparison. (5.23)
The cold, hard truth about Nan's past kind of makes Lily rethink that whole bit about her family being freaks. Having a weird family is better than having no one at all. It's a much-needed shift in perspective for Lily.
When [Lonnie] thought of home these days, it felt as if he'd been cast out, and yet he knew it hadn't really been like that. Pop might have thrown him out of his house, but Mum hadn't chucked him out of theirs. It had been his own choice to go; he'd wanted space from them. (8.3)
There's a lot in this book about young people needing "space" from their families, but who among us can't relate to that one? Maybe this is one of the things that bonds Lonnie and Clara together: They both find each other while on journeys to discover who they are without their parents.
[Lily] went into her mother's room and took the old shoe box from the top shelf of the wardrobe. A shoe box! Proper families kept their photographs in albums, labeled with names and dates and places. (10.19)
Actually, Lily, a lot of people probably keep their family pictures in shoeboxes. Again, Lily has a somewhat idealized notion of what a family is and fails to see that when it comes down to it, her situation isn't all that unique.
Freakish, thought Lily. That was the word that best described their family. Not freaks, exactly, but getting there. They were a family that somehow didn't fit—at least not into the orderly suburb where they lived, a neighborhood in which any human problem was tidied out of sight. (13.11)
Here's a weird thought: Lily is essentially judging the other families in her community by what their houses look like. Yet she's very quick to call Pop out for making judgments about others based on race. Isn't that kind of hypocritical? Whether you think the situations are comparable or not, she's definitely not seeing the whole picture of these people's lives.
Something unexpectedly stirred in Lonnie then, something guilty and surprised. Perhaps he should have helped [Lily] more when he'd been at home—he was hopeless at housework and stuff, though. He'd only have gotten in the way, made things worse. (14.9)
A funny thing happens when you're away from your family for a long period of time: You start thinking about how things went down in your house and how, believe it or not, you kind of made some stuff worse. That's what Lonnie's doing as he thinks back about Lily's role in their home; for the first time, absent from his sister, he sees how hard her life is and wishes he'd contributed, even within his limitations.
Lon had Mum's eyes! How had he forgotten? Because Lon wasn't his grandson anymore, that's why! He didn't want to think of Lon; he didn't want to think he'd come all the way here because it was the color of Lon's eyes he was trying to remember. (23.75)
Stan goes to his old neighborhood in hopes of remembering a pretty small detail—the color of his mom's eyes—and instead he finds the answer in the very person he's trying to avoid thinking about: Lonnie. Oops. Stan, you may have written the kid off, but he's still related to you. There's no escaping genetics.
Lily threw her arms out wide, despairingly. "It could have been this brilliant, perfect day!"
"Lily, it will be."
"No, it can't be."
"We're too… dysfunctional."
"Show me a family that isn't!" Marigold actually chuckled, infuriating Lily. (35.45-50)
Marigold gives Lily a much needed reality check here, but it's also probably one of the most important moments in the book. It's true that every family, simply by being an assortment of different people living together, has their own special brand of dysfunction, and this is a lesson Lily needs to get through her head.
"Ah!" the glance Rose flung at him was withering. "No one ever stops being someone's child." (38.55)
Lonnie, Clara, Charlie, and Stan all seem to have this odd notion that family ties end the minute you have a serious disagreement. Rose, however, offers a powerful statement: Family is forever. Everyone in the Samson family, and the Lee family by extension, is someone's son or daughter—no matter how old they are.