French Braid by Anne Tyler
3/22/22; 256 pages
French Braid by Anne Tyler is a very highly recommended portrait of a family. No one authentically portrays families in their frailties and strengths like Tyler. This exceptional novel provides uncomfortable truths, allows a few self-deceptions, little kindnesses, and little cruelties while depicting a Baltimore family.
French Braid follows the Garrett family over the course of sixty years. In the opening set in 2010, Serena and her boyfriend are in a Philadelphia train station when Serena thinks a man in the crowd is her cousin Nicholas. She hasn't seen him for years and can't really identify him. Her boyfriend thinks that there is some hidden secret about the distance between her extended family members. After this opening scene, the novel drops back in time to provide a portrait of the family over several decades.
In 1959, Robin and Mercy Garrett and their three children, oldest
daughter Alice, her younger sister fifteen-year-old Lucy, and
seven-year-old David, take their first and last family
vacation. It becomes obvious why they have never taken a vacation. Robin
is uncomfortable without a routine and worries about costs. Mercy
simply wants to wander off alone and paint. Alice is the dependable one.
Lucy is absent running around with an older boy she met. And quiet
David is content playing with his plastic GIs he calls veterinarians.
This vacation captures the essence of the family that will be confirmed
over the years.
The narrative then unfolds over the years through the perspective of
individual family members, capturing their lives and the distance
between them. David remains distanced from his family, only occasionally
joining family events, which are few and far between. This is where
Tyler's unsurpassed skill and artistry is shown in her ability to create
and develop realistic, sympathetic characters. The portrayal of each
character is insightful as specific details are revealed and clarified
over the years.
Tyler has been one of my favorite writers for years and French Braid
perfectly showcases why. The quality of her writing is always perfect,
finely crafted and exemplary. She always depicts her characters, who are
average people, with such sympathy, warmth, insight and clarity. There
is kindness as well as cruelty in their intermingled lives. Nothing huge
or shocking happens in the plot, but much as in most ordinary people,
there are small incidents and events that can add up. Characters do make
some major choices, but it is presented as an event, not a crisis, and
it is telling how the characters react to these crucial choices.
Everyone should read this novel. French Braid is one of the best novels of the year.
The title comes from a discussion between David and his wife where he
explains that families are like French braids. When you undo
them, the hair is still in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for
hours and hours afterward. David said, “that’s how
families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never
really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”
My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author via Edelweiss.