At first glance, Anne Tyler’s new novel is a return to the formula that won her critical and commercial acclaim for novels such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Amateur Marriage and the Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread. As with these titles, French Braid charts the experiences of one family over decades, in this case from the 1950s to the present troubled times of the pandemic.
The Garretts are classic Tyler: a functioning-not-functioning clan, whose lives are deftly rendered on a broad canvas that gives the outline of multiple generations. This scope offers much for the reader, not least varying perspectives within one family on seminal moments (a summer holiday; the last child leaving for college; a surprise 50th-anniversary party) and on the smaller, seemingly insignificant things that can, as another great chronicler of American lives, Mary Gaitskill, has written, "sit oddly close to a person's heart, and sometimes press against it painfully".
The deep dive into character is abandoned for a more impressionistic style
But while the breadth of French Braid is to be commended, the depth of experience doesn't quite match. The deep dive into character so beloved of Tyler's contemporaries Jonathan Franzen and Ann Patchett (and indeed Tyler herself in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Clock Dance or her Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons) is abandoned for a more impressionistic style, in which the reader meets a wide cast of characters but doesn't get to linger in the individual lives.
The opening section is a case in point: a vivid scene that depicts a college student, Serena, taking a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Both the nature of the meeting – Serena refuses to stay the night – and a chance encounter with a cousin she barely recognises on the journey home establishes the novel’s central theme of estrangement within a family. Yet Serena herself doesn’t reappear until the final third of the book, by which time it is hard to remember what her boyfriend is called, or to make the connection that she ended up marrying someone else.
One could argue that this narrative style reflects the book’s themes, its subtle warnings on the perils of disconnection, which are reinforced in later sections as Covid leaves everyone isolated. Before this, the reader is shown, over decades, how loved ones can choose to close themselves off from family without any big reason.
This is familiar Tyler terrain, the meshing of ordinary and extraordinary. It results in a thought-provoking, eminently readable novel, one where the Baltimore author’s trademark perception and eye for life’s absurdities are in abundance.
The plot, as such, revolves around Mercy and Robin Garrett, their three children and various grandchildren that come along in time. We first meet the Garretts on their one and only family holiday to Deep Creek Lake in the late 1950s. Dynamics are quickly established: workaholic, emotionally repressed Robin; artistically unfulfilled (and humorously useless) housewife Mercy; mother-hen eldest child Alice; teen tearaway Lily; and the doted-on baby of the family, David, who is no fan of the great outdoors.
French Braid ambles along for its early sections, giving the reader time to get comfortable in family life, before narrative tension is introduced by Mercy’s decision to covertly leave her marriage of 40 years once David goes to college. An amateur painter who has been in quiet revolt, or denial, for much of her marriage, she sums up her years as mother and wife in pinpoint fashion: “It all happened so fast, she thought, even though it had seemed endless at the time.”
Mercy moves to a rented studio, ostensibly to paint, bringing boxes of her belongings a few at a time, until ultimately the family accepts her decision without anything close to a dramatic interrogation. Her new way of life is mined for humour – how she’s unwilling to even look after an orchid, that famously low-maintenance house plant – but also has moments of great pathos in Robin’s wilful blindness to the situation, and his perpetual hope she might return.
Tyler knows her world, and her readers, and although this book may not have the heft of some of her others, it is an engaging, enjoyable read
There are shades of Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! in the neat handling of time shifts and the exclamations of enlightenment or wonder made by various family members over the course of the book. Tyler shows her experience in subtle ways, such as calling two grandchildren the same name, a stylistic choice a less confident writer might be unwilling to make.
But Tyler knows her world, and her readers, and although this book may not have the heft of some of her others, it is an engaging, enjoyable read, full of wisdom and fine feeling on family life: “Marriages have stages. They have incarnations, almost. You can be in a good marriage and you can be in a bad marriage, and they can both be the same one but just at different times.”