Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes a novel just strikes the right mood. You pick it up, start reading and become so immersed in the story you lose all sense of time. Before you know it, you’ve read half the book — or at least made substantial inroads.

This is how I felt when I read Anne Tyler’s latest novel, French Braid.

I am a long-time Anne Tyler fan so it’s no surprise I would like this book, but I reckon it’s the best one she’s written since 1982’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, my favourite Tyler novel. That’s probably because it shares similar traits in terms of its focus on a dysfunctional family and the way chance events shape people’s lives and how sibling relationships are dictated by power dynamics beyond their control.

One family’s story

French Braid charts the history of the Garrett family over several decades — from 1959 through to 2020 — and features all the quintessential trademarks of Tyler’s work: a tapestry of complex family dynamics, a cast of quirky but believable characters, and a Baltimore setting.

There’s no real plot; the character-driven narrative moves ahead in roughly ten-year increments and each chapter is written (in the third person) from the perspective of a particular family member. This allows the reader to get to know the family relatively well, to understand the events that have shaped each person and given rise to certain misunderstandings or lessons or viewpoints.

We witness children growing older, moving out of home, finding partners of their own and having children. The passing of time is marked by graduations, family gatherings, weddings and celebratory dinners and occasions.

It is, at times, poignant and heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny.

A family holiday sets the tone

The family is centred around Robin and Mercy, who get married in 1940, and their children Alice, Lily and David, whose ties and loyalties are tested and divided as they grow up to become adults with lives and families of their own.

A rare family holiday in 1959, when the girls are teens and David is a seven-year-old, underpins the entire family history and sets the tone for everything that follows. What unfolds on that lake in Maryland has long-lasting repercussions. David, in particular, is scarred by Robin’s heavy-handed attempts to force him to go swimming when he’d prefer to play quietly with his toys.

As the years slide by, the Garrett’s marriage comes under strain, not least because Mercy wants the freedom to pursue her ambitions to be a painter. She begins to spend more and more time at the studio she rents nearby, slowly moving her belongings there and staying overnight. Her adult children are under the impression she’s moved out of the family home, but it’s a subject that can’t be broached with their father, who remains devoted to his wife.

It’s the things left unsaid, the uncomfortable truths that remain hidden, which allows the family to muddle on without self-imploding. David’s wife puts it succinctly like this:

This is what families do for each other — hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.

French Braid is completely immersive as we follow the strands of the Garrett’s disparate lives across three generations. It’s tender, wise, knowing and funny. I loved it.

23 thoughts on “‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler”

  1. Great review, Kim. I finished reading it a couple of nights ago and I agree that it is her best one for a while (since maybe The Amateur Marriage). I didn’t have high hopes based on the prologue with Serena and her college boyfriend at the station – here we go again, I thought, Tyler attempting to write a younger contemporary character and failing once more (see The Beginner’s Goodbye and Redhead by the Side of the Road) but once she takes you back to the 50s she’s on surer footing and the rest of the novel just sings. Also, not having a great deal of time to read at the moment, I really appreciated the fact that the book was structured more like a collection of linked short stories!

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    1. Thanks, David, and yes, good point about it reading like a collection of short stories. That wasn’t something that occurred to me until I was nearing the end of the book, but it’s a good way to describe the structure. I read this back in April but never got to write my review as I was interviewing for a new job and just didn’t have the time. Writing it today, I had fun rereading sections to refresh my memory. There are actually some really funny scenes in this book!

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    1. Yes, the perspective shifts allow you to see where misunderstandings have occurred while also showing you how different people view the same incident or event in different ways.

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    1. It’s a fun read, Cathy. She really understands the complexities of family life and what happens to siblings as they grow up and then forge successful lives of their own. Yet when they get back together for family occasions all the old rivalries and anxieties come to the fore, almost as if they have reverted back to their much younger selves.

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  2. What a lovely review – I really enjoyed this, too (apart from Mercy’s unforgiveable act) but found it really quite emotional and poignant, more than most of the others.

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    1. It is emotional and poignant but it’s also very funny in places. Mercy’s business idea and the way that certain clients are upset by the paintings she does for them was just hilarious!

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    1. You are in for a treat! The first chapter is a bit disorientating because it’s not in chronological order, but when the narrative spools back to 1959 it really hits its stride.

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  3. Hi Kim – I’m also a long time Tyler fan and felt the same way from the first page of this book. She captures people so well that you feel as if you’ve caught up with a relative who has filled you in on people you know! Easy to read because it is so believable.

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    1. She knows people so well but especially the things that are said to you as a child or minor incidences that happen which end up shaping your whole life.

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      1. Thanks, Brona. I read it a couple of months ago but was interviewing for a job so my energies got diverted elsewhere. Writing this today brought back all the pleasure of reading the book, too.

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  4. I generally enjoy a Tyler book without paying them too much attention listening as I work. I remember not liking Homesick Restaurant from before Liz Dexter had me paying Tyler some attention. David’s comment, that Tyler is more comfortable with the 1950s resonates though. I’ll keep an eye out for this one at the library.

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    1. Yes, she’s especially good at 50s and 60s, which is her era I guess. I’d offer you my copy but it’s already been promised to my sister who is coming over from Melbourne for a long weekend visit next weekend.

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