French Braid by Anne Tyler

Reviewed by Harriet

‘That’s how families work. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever’.

Here, not many pages before the end of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, finally comes the explanation of the title. An ageing couple, David and Greta, are getting ready for bed, and an image has come to David’s mind of the way his sister Emily used to braid her hair: ‘They would start with two skeins of hair up near her temples, very skinny and tight, and then join in with two thicker braids lower down….and then when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples…’. And that, essentially, is what the novel is about: the way small events within a family have repercussions through the generations. If you’re a lover of exciting plots with plenty of action, this is not the book for you. As Ann pointed out in her Shiny review of Tyler’s previous book, Redhead by the Side of the Road [here], the author has said that plot gets in the way of of her real concern, the development of character. In French Braid there is plenty of opportunity to observe such small events and their ripple effect on the characters, as the timespan of the novel starts in 1959 and ends in the present day. 

Before launching into 1959, though, Tyler introduces Serena Drew, a graduate student. It’s 2010, and she’s at the Philadelphia train station waiting to go home to Baltimore when she spots a young man who may or may not be her cousin Nicholas. Her boyfriend James is bemused by her uncertainty – he has eleven cousins and would recognise them all. Serena has five, but they rarely see each other – there are no great family reunions, just occasional meetings at weddings and funerals. On the train, Serena reflects that ‘even when the Garretts did get together, it never seemed to take, so to speak’; she finds herself longing for the journey to end so she can be on her own again. Many seeds are sown in this first chapter which will be explored in the chapters that follow.

Back in 1959, the Garrett family are at the start of their first ever family vacation, a week in a ‘rustic little cabin’ at Deep Creek Lake. Robin Garrett is a plumber, and doesn’t see the point of vacations. His wife Mercy has insisted on bringing her painting materials on holiday; she doesn’t enjoy cooking though she makes fancy desserts. Two of their three children are not enjoying themselves: seventeen-year-old Alice feels too grown up to enjoy travelling with her family, and fifteen-year-old Lily is furious at being parted from her boyfriend. But David, aged seven, is in heaven. He’s a happy child, excited at the prospect of new and exciting experiences. He takes his toys to the beach and enjoys playing quietly with them, inventing scenarios for them to act out. But as the days go by, his father becomes increasingly irritated by his unwillingness to learn to swim, and eventually, when Mercy and the girls are out, he forces the boy into the water and has to haul him out by one arm. By the time the rest of the family return, David has shut himself in his bedroom, and for the remainder of the week is quiet and withdrawn, refusing to go anywhere near the lake. Meanwhile Mercy is out painting most of the day, Lily has flung herself into a new relationship, and it’s up to Alice to shop and cook for the family.

These are the strands of the braid, and the rest of the novel shows how they develop over the years, with each chapter taking place about a decade apart. Alice becomes increasingly serious, judgmental and bossy, a legacy of her early pressure to take responsibility for the family. Lily has flitted between husbands and lovers, and David has more or less removed himself, failing to tell his family about his marriage until after the event. As for Mercy, who becomes more or less the central figure throughout a good deal of the book, she longs for independence, increasingly determined not to be ‘just a housewife’. Having left art college early to get married, she now wants to concentrate on her painting, and after the children have all left home, she finds herself a nearby studio and slowly, very slowly, makes it her home, moving her possessions there bit by bit. Although she reassures Robin that she hasn’t left him, still appearing at the family home most days, it becomes clear to the rest of the family that she has. 

The final chapter, in which David muses over families and braids, takes place during the pandemic. You might know that Tyler said she would never use the pandemic in a novel, but she has. It functions well here, bringing David and Greta’s son and their little grandson to stay during lockdown. This gives David a chance recognise family traits in little Benny, sayings and reactions that seem to have somehow been passed down through the generations. But the main trait, though he doesn’t remark it, seems to be that desire for solitude that drove Mercy to set up home elsewhere, that made David remove himself from the family as indeed his sisters have done, and that makes Lily’s daughter Serena, sitting on that train, long for the time when she can be alone. 

‘The greatest living novelist? Easy. It’s Anne Tyler’ – so, apparently, said novelist John Boyne. That’s obviously debatable, and everyone will have their own candidate. But it would be hard to find a writer more skilled in the minutiae of family life, and the close observation of how human beings think and feel. A very enjoyable novel.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Anne Tyler, French Braid  (Chatto & Windus, 2022). 978-1784744625, 256pp., hardback.

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