Review of French Braid by Anne Tyler

A few years back, Anne Tyler indicated that she would be retiring from writing. She’s written four novels since and I’m glad that she retired from the idea of retiring because where would we be without a new Anne Tyler novel?

French Braid

Anne Tyler

March 22, 2022


Blurb: The Garretts take their first and last family vacation in the summer of 1959. They hardly ever leave home, but in some ways they have never been farther apart. Mercy has trouble resisting the siren call of her aspirations to be a painter, which means less time keeping house for her husband, Robin. Their teenage daughters, steady Alice and boy-crazy Lily, could not have less in common. Their youngest, David, is already intent on escaping his family’s orbit, for reasons none of them understand. Yet, as these lives advance across decades, the Garretts’ influences on one another ripple ineffably but unmistakably through each generation.
Full of heartbreak and hilarity, French Braid is classic Anne Tyler: a stirring, uncannily insightful novel of tremendous warmth and humor that illuminates the kindnesses and cruelties of our daily lives, the impossibility of breaking free from those who love us, and how close—yet how unknowable—every family is to itself.

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Anne Tyler’s latest novel French Braid opens with a young woman, Serena, returning from a visit to her boyfriend’s parents’ house when she spots a man who she thinks is her cousin, but she’s uncertain. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand how that’s possible. How can she not know if that guy is her cousin? In the subsequent pages and chapters, Tyler shows us the workings of a family who really are separate individuals who frequently don’t understand each other and often don’t even try. The novel spans 70 years showing thoughtfulness and love, acceptance and tolerance, dislike and judgement as well as peculiar eccentricities that make up human beings.

I loved reading about the Garrett family and could have happily read about them for a few hundred more pages. Anne Tyler has this gift of writing characters that you could imagine floating through your own life. Even characters that left me a bit unhinged, Mercy Garrett, wife, mother, artist comes to mind because I both loved and disliked her. Actually I felt that love and dislike for many of the characters because they were written with such believable depth. Mercy Garrett leaves her husband bit-by-bit as she removes items from their shared home to her artist’s studio where she’s decided she’s going to live. Critics have expressed that this is a hilarious situation when I found it to be terribly sad.

The narration bounces between characters, allowing the reader to see how scenes were viewed from different perspectives. “Just one side of the story” has never been truer than when you read how these characters view events. And what eventually evolves is how individuals view scenes differently. Also, for characters like father Robin, you see his insecurities, his love, and his desires. He becomes something more than what previous scenes might have shown him to be.

Sometimes I felt a bit torn. For instance, on the one family vacation the Garretts take to Deep Creek Lake, we see how caring and unselfish Alice is but in subsequent scenes she’s depicted as controlling and bossy. I recognize that she can be all of these things because people change as they grow. Likewise, Lily is boy crazy and dramatic, given to flings and tumult, but she’s also open-minded and kind. And, unfortunately, I never completely understood their brother David’s seeming estrangement. I expected some huge reveal, which didn’t happen, that would explain him to me. That would explain how he would even cut Alice, who was always the one to understand him and the one who pretty much raised him, from his life. There was a smaller reveal but it didn’t satisfy me. (Or maybe I just need to be hit over the head.)

French Braid is a quilt of narration, ideas, and realizations. What does it mean to be a parent, a wife, a father, daughter, sibling? Individuals in a family can love each other but that doesn’t mean they have to like each other. While it never answers why one family is close and another isn’t, it certainly does show how a family becomes separate.

Perhaps the most bittersweet scenes are the ones in which Tyler tackles the pandemic world. How a child navigates meeting other children, living with his grandparents while his mother works as an ER doctor, how he makes face masks on a sewing machine, sometime badly, and how when its time to leave, his grandparents feel the absence so strongly.

And, for this reader, having lived 70 years with this family in just a few days, I felt sadness in seeing the period ending the last sentence.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Five Butterflies

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