by Anne Tyler.
New York: Knopf, 2022. 244 pp.
A Review by D. Margaret Hoffman
We are conditioned, as readers of fiction and watchers of movies, to crave the BIG moments—the life-altering apexes, the in-your-face conflicts, the neat resolutions that come after the shocking climaxes.
That’s not what we get from Anne Tyler. French Braid is the quiet story of a family living its life and showing that, no matter how distant (both physically and emotionally) its members become, they are still bound to one another though genes, traditions, attitudes and circumstance. It is not an earth-shaking revelation. Nor is it an earth-shaking novel, just an honest, thought-provoking one.
The Garrett family is not close. The parents, Robin and Mercy, don’t even live together as Mercy slowly but surely moves herself into the studio that she rents to do her painting. Their children, Alice, Lily and David, are as different and distinct from one another as siblings can be. Ironically, Lily, the wildest of them, stays the closest to her parents by managing the family’s plumbing store and working alongside Robin.
But it’s the grandchildren who hold the key to the family ties, by not being close to their grandparents, aunts, uncle and cousins. Serena, Lily’s daughter, makes that clear in Chapter One when she only sort of recognizes her cousin Nicholas, son of her uncle David. Their small talk in a train station leads to a discussion of Alice’s daughter Candle (actually, Kendall) whom Nicholas barely remembers. Yet, by the time the book ends and we have seen this family into its fourth generation, we learn that even families that are far apart in space are much closer than they know in fact.
As David enjoys pandemic time with his grandson, Nicholas’s son Benny, he—and we—recognize that the familial chain continues unbroken—whether the key players know it or not. The metaphor of the French braid, tight at the outset and looser at the end, explains how the Garretts’ connections intertwine, weave together and eventually loosen. But even when unbraided altogether, the crimping remains. The family makes its mark and we live with it—and in it—for all of our lives.
This is not an edge-of-your-seat, what-happens-next kind of book. We know what happens. People grow up in families. Then they go off and make families of their own. Then these families splinter off into new families and the old folks die off. The young ones take over and think they are unique, independent, individual and free of the past. But they aren’t. They are as connected to it as imprinted by it as hair that has spent it formative time in a French braid. The crimps are there to stay.
By the time we finish this book we will have seen the Garrett family through more than six decades. We know from whence even the youngest have sprung. We see in them—and in ourselves—the ties, and the braids, that bind.