A Review of
French Braid: A Novel
Reviewed by Simon Travers
Whether you deal in the old money of ‘compulsions… robed as destinies’ or the crypto-currency of being ‘seen’, it is a universal human desire to be taken seriously. Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel, French Braid, places this theme at the center of a story tracing four generations of a family across the course of sixty-one years. Tyler is perhaps, by reputation, a perfect author to consider such a theme. Beloved by an audience that vociferously demands that her sharp-eyed, grace-filled style be acknowledged among the greatest authors of the age, she is arguably the middlebrow champion of the world.
With French Braid, Tyler intertwines the theme of taking people seriously with a portrait of family life, because she knows that to be the primary context where we are measured as either serious or, the true opposite of serious, shallow. Tyler introduces us to four generations of the Garrett family, a family that seems to have difficulty in holding together or appreciating each other. Neither a saga nor a straight chronicle of the family’s life, French Braid presents a series of vignettes rooted in the point of view of one of the family members. Tyler describes what she is attempting in this book through the artistic style of painting matriarch Mercy. Mercy goes into business painting house portraits. Her style is mainly impressionistic, but includes one item in the picture rendered with photographic detail and precision that captures the aura of the house. Likewise, Garrett weddings and funerals are skimmed past, but the reader gets to sit in on family meals and furniture removals.
With French Braid, Tyler allows herself the narratorial space to share observations from a lifetime of considering families, and distills them into aphorisms. Tolstoy’s classic phrase that ‘happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, would fit stylistically well into this novel. However, fortunately, Tyler ignores Tolstoy’s thrust and the Garretts will feel familiar to those who have spent time with Tyler’s other unhappy families. This is not a case of Tyler repeating herself, more that she has reached the point where perhaps she is as much a genre as an author. French Braid provides flighty mothers, mis-matched siblings, razor sharp observation and of course plenty of Baltimore. All are as welcome as a vicar with a dark secret in an Agatha Christie.
That is not to say that French Braid is two-dimensional or without ambition. Tyler works hard in the early chapters to establish a set of narrative expectations where there is a tease of dark secrets that are toyed with throughout later chapters. In lesser hands, French Braid would be the story of one catastrophic moment of abuse that left a family crippled. As she has throughout her career, Tyler resists easy answers, trite resolutions and big reveals. Instead, the reader is invited to hold the tensions with characters who clearly love each other, but struggle to take each other seriously. The post-war generational sweep of the story elicits sympathy for characters caught between societal expectations that they will be simultaneously the perfect nuclear family and perfect individualist post-war consumers. Tyler seems to argue that you can have it all, but not all at the same time.
As a wider context to the development of the Garrett clan, Tyler also has new things to say about Baltimore. While the city is still at the root of the text, as with every Tyler novel, its place in the hearts of the characters is challenged. French Braid is set in a time when ties to place are not strong enough to hold when familial bonds are weak. The novel acknowledges that for a family like the Garretts, diaspora to Philadelphia, Florida and the Carolinas is a way of overcoming their family tensions. That dispersing points to an exploration throughout the book about when taking the people we love seriously requires confrontation, and when it is more gracious to hold the tongue. The Garretts in general are more comfortable with things being left unspoken and Tyler reflects the beauty as well as the limitations of that approach. The Garretts all know their limitations; they are too beige, too meat and potatoes, too unpretty and do not need reminding.
However, Tyler finds the beauty in the Garretts and French Braid soars highest in the glimpses of the family at their most reverent. A chapter is devoted to the grandmother/granddaughter relationship between Mercy and Kendall, nicknamed Candle. Candle, edging into her teenage years, does not want to be shackled with her childhood nickname any more. She is exploring who she is beyond her parent’s value on respectability and affluence. Tyler shows Candle starting to mature and Mercy being offered a new chance to connect with a family life she chose estrangement from. The chapter culminates with Mercy inviting Candle on a grown-up day trip to New York City. Empathic and charming, this chapter is as fine as the best of Tyler and is worth the purchase price alone.
Although newcomers to Anne Tyler’s work should still start by booking a table for two at the Homesick Restaurant, French Braid is more than a comfort read for hardened fans. Maintaining standards close to the best of her work, Tyler writes here with a humanity that transcends the needs for happy resolutions. That continues to sustain her as a significant voice through the dissonant pandemic times that are reflected in the novel’s final chapter. French Braid is a serious novel about taking people seriously, a universal that we all need and, throughout the ages and formations of our family lives, struggle to give and receive.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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