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:
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