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.