What ties families together – and pulls them apart

In the deftly crafted family portrait “French Braid,” Anne Tyler examines a long marriage and its effects on the couple and their children. 

"French Braid" by Anne Tyler, Knopf, 256 pp.

Tightly woven into Anne Tyler’s “French Braid” is the idea that families are much like the novel’s titular hairdo and the colorful braided rug on its cover. Like both, families are composed of plaited strands. But also like braids, families can unravel. And when they do, the individual strands often show the telltale crimping of their former weave.

Tyler’s 24th novel is the latest addition to the remarkable human comedy she has spun over the last half century, mainly set in Baltimore. It is an artful mix of several recurrent elements in her work, along with some new twists, including the coronavirus pandemic. 

The appeal, as always, is in being privy to the feelings, insecurities, uncertainties, and peculiarities of ordinary people who come alive in Tyler’s hands. The wonder of “French Braid” is the easygoing fluidity with which Tyler jumps and floats between characters and decades to create what in the end is a deftly crafted family portrait that spans some 70 years.  

“Oh, what makes a family not work?” one of Tyler’s characters wonders in the novel’s opening chapter. After nearly failing to recognize a first cousin in the Philadelphia train station, Serena Drew realizes how disconnected her family is. Her college boyfriend comments, “You guys give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘once removed.’” 

Serena is one of six grandchildren of Robin and Mercy Garrett, whose midcentury marriage Tyler chronicles as it gradually works loose over the course of more than 50 years. Serena’s question, beginning with its quaint and slightly resigned “Oh,” underpins “French Braid.” 

Readers of “The Amateur Marriage,” “A Spool of Blue Thread,” and “Breathing Lessons” will be familiar with Tyler’s interest in how marriages, whether happy or difficult, play out over decades and generations. A wry yet sympathetic eavesdropper into others’ daily routines and thoughts, Tyler has long made it clear that even dysfunctional families function, however problematically. In her fiction, marriage is a long haul, but then, so is life, with its stages and vicissitudes.

Part of the lure of long haul plots is watching characters who were pigeonholed as children both reinforce and confound expectations: the bossy one who becomes more fixed in her judgments; the wild child who settles down with a dull but unfailingly kind, steady husband and takes over the family plumbing supply business from her father; the disconnected, uncommunicative son who has the audacity to move away from Baltimore and marry an older woman his family finds off-putting – yet who shines brightly as a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather when the pandemic hits.

We first meet Robin and Mercy and their three children during the family’s only vacation, a week in a rented cabin at Deep Creek Lake in 1959, which sets the stage for much that follows. While Mercy wanders off into the woods to paint and Robin spends much of his time in the water gabbing with a new friend, their oldest child, 17-year-old Alice, takes over the parental roles of looking after her 7-year-old brother, monitoring her 15-year-old sister’s reckless flirtation with an older boy, and preparing meals which challenge her father’s limited palate with such exotic ingredients as “avocado pears,” eggplant, and marinated pork chops. 

Marriages, in particular, often turn out to be the wild card in Tyler’s characters’ lives. We read in fascination as Mercy surreptitiously moves, item by item, into her rented art studio as soon as the last of her three children is off to college. “Are you leaving me?” her husband asks with alarm when she explains her intention to spend some nights in her deliberately barebones studio. She assures him that she would never do that – and, indeed, she continues to care for him. Bizarrely, their de facto separation is never acknowledged, even by their children.

Mercy comes from a long line of Tyler characters who realize that the life they’ve signed onto is not the life they want. But rather than run away, Mercy quietly reshapes her life in a way that’s meant to inflict the least hurt. This is a woman who rejects both a cat and a house plant as requiring too much care – and the sort of mother whom one of her daughters likens to “those cats who fail to recognize their own kittens after they’ve grown up.” 

Interestingly, in her recent interview on the BBC radio show “Desert Island Discs,” Tyler, speaking of her tendency not to remember details from her own novels after they’ve been published, compares herself to a cat who doesn’t recognize her own kittens. But what a wonderful litter she’s sent out into the world.

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