Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler

French Braid
Anne Tyler

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I had to wait a long time to get Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel from the library, but it was worth it! Back in the 80s and 90s, I read a lot of her books. Despite the time lapse, I’ve found it easy to fall back into the familiar rhythm of Tyler’s writing style.

As with her other books, French Braid is about marriage and family relationships. Set in Baltimore, Tyler looks at three generations of the Garrett family and asks the question, “What is a normal family?” Because the Garretts seem anything but normal. They’re disjointed and noncommunicative, even when they’re together. Past hurts remain buried, but show themselves in unexpected moments. Many of them have solitary personalities. Others don’t know how to connect. Robin, for example, adores Mercy, but he’s awkward around her. And Mercy is too caught up in her painting to notice.

French Braid isn’t a chronological story. Tyler jumps around and readers get to know the family through a variety of situations and points of view. She begins with Serena in 2010, returning from Philadelphia with her college boyfriend. On the train, they argue about families. The boyfriend is baffled by Serena’s detached comments, especially after they’d run into a cousin she’d barely recognized at the train station. She tries to explain why they don’t see that side of the family much. “It’s Uncle David, really. My mom says she can’t understand it. He used to be so outgoing when he was a little boy…”

Soon we’re back in 1959 when Robin and Mercy take their three children on their only family vacation This first generation of Garretts are all a little detached. Mercy spends her time painting, leaving the meals to Alice. Lily meets a boy. Robin heads to the lake and David, just seven years old, seems happy to stay out of the water and play by himself. He does not want to learn to swim and grows quiet at the suggestion.

Next it’s 1970 and David heads off to college. Robin and Mercy talk about their empty nest and what they will do together, but Mercy has her own plans, edging bit by bit away from her husband.

I don’t want to give more away, so I’ll stop here. I’ve had to think about this book to let it sink in. The Garretts are frustratingly distant, especially Mercy. At first, it seems to be only a bunch of unrelated snippets of time, but then you begin to see a connection between generations. For example, I didn’t like Mercy because I thought she was selfish, but later when I saw how she connected with her granddaughter, Candle, I felt I understood her better. Still selfish though, in my opinion!

Over time, the family reassembles in haphazard ways. Interestingly, it’s a couple of the in-laws who smooth the rough edges and help their spouses understand. What it all comes down to is that there is no real definition of family. Tyler also seems to suggest is that the Garretts need to define themselves as individuals, alone.

French Braid is a deceptively simple story that explores uncomfortable family dynamics. In the end, I felt understood the Garretts better. Like everyone, they’re just looking for happiness. At the finish, Tyler brings us to the present as David and his family manage during the pandemic. David’s heartening connection with his grandson makes you feel full of hope for the whole group.

This sounds like a depressing story, but it’s not! It’s full of both touching and amusing moments. Tyler’s ability to see into the complex ways families relate to each other comes through time and again. I enjoyed French Braid very much and recommend it to readers who like stories about marriage, families and relationships.

Check out my reviews of these other books by Anne Tyler:

The Beginner’s Goodbye
Breathing Lessons
A Spool of Blue Thread

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

32 thoughts on “Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler

  1. Thanks for the review, Barb. I like Anne Tyler’s writing though it isn’t generally a genre that I gravitate toward. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Happy Reading.

    1. Hi Diana – thank you for reading and commenting. We all have our genres that we like 🙂 Hope you’re reading something good right now!

    1. Hi Darlene – yes, I agree. There’s always the perception of normal, but it’s only an image that people can’t mirror. Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

      1. As Leo Tolstoy says at the beginning of Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

  2. I’m breaking my blog break temporarily to announce that I too have been an Anne Tyler devotee. Like you, I waited a long time to get this book from the library because there were many “holds.” One quote I noted from the novel: “Oh the lengths this family would go to so as not to spoil the picture of how things were supposed to be.” Great review, Barb!.

    1. Hi Lynette – that’s what I like about Anne Tyler’s books – it helps to normalize the things that happen in families. Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

  3. Great review! Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors. I own hardcovers of all of her novels and have read 18 of them. I still have her first six yet to read. I usually read one a year of her remaining novels I have yet to read, but I get sad to think of a time when I’ve read them all. I’m a bit of an outlier among Tyler fans regarding French Braid, though. I rated it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. I had high expectations, though, so that may have played a part in my rating.

    1. Hi K – thanks for stopping by and commenting. I understand why people only gave it three stars. I was leaning that way right after I finished the book, even though I devoured the book, but after I thought about the story and about how connected it was, I changed my mind and gave it 4 stars. I found myself really thinking about the characters and wondering why they put space between themselves and others. I also thought it was interesting how the third generation had personality traits similar to their grandparents.

  4. Hi Barb, I recently read French Braid and really enjoyed it. When I read the opening lines of your review, I thought I wrote. Your experience with Anne Tyler is so similar to mine. Thanks for writing a great review.

  5. Good review. I will have to check this one at my library and hadn’t heard of it. I have read several of her books in the past and enjoyed them. This one sounds good- what family is normal?

  6. Thanks for this review
    I have it on my TBR list
    I used to read a lot of Anne Tyler years ago so will give this ago

  7. Good review and I could really imagine Serena on the train having that convo with her boyfriend
    And leave it to the in-laws to bring in fresh perspective and insight – that seems very realistic.

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