When I was younger, I didn’t read much American literature. It’s not something we did at school and I guess I just stuck to what I knew. Whatever the reason, I don’t think I’ve read anything by Anne Tyler before. I know that she is one of those writers that everyone recommends but I just haven’t picked anything up. I’ve got plenty of books on my Kindle and bookshelves. I just need to get around to them. Now I’ve read this one, it might actually inspire me to do it.
There’s nothing I like more than a short book that is light on plot and strong on characters. If there’s one author who’s going to give that to me then it’s Anne Tyler. Tyler is known for her family sagas and French Braid sees her return to the multigenerational ensemble that she is so comfortable with. It takes us through the history of a typical American family from Baltimore. We meet the Garrett family and see them grow through the years. It takes us through several defining moments in any family’s life: the plight of the empty nesters; marriage strife; new generations; and the loss of relatives.
At the head of the family are Mercy and Robin, a seemingly mismatched couple who married in their early 20s. He’s a plumber and she’s a housewife with dreams of being an artist. Their story begins in the Summer of 1959 when Mercy convinces her husband to take their first and last family holiday. It then jumps between the decades right up until the 2020 pandemic. We see Mercy and Robin’s family grow and change as new family members enter and old ones depart. This is a fantastic look at how a family’s dynamic affects future generations. Tyler can zone in on the little moments that end up having a major impact throughout the decades.
Anne Tyler is a very readable author, which isn’t meant to sound as patronising as it does. This is the kind of story that just absorbs you and you won’t find it easy to get out. Despite how little actually happens. This isn’t a book that has a lot of drama. Tyler has a keen eye for the seemingly insignificant moments that can secretly change a relationship. She takes the minutiae of family life and shows how it can filter down from parent to child. The Garretts aren’t a close family even though most of them live incredibly close. As Mercy and Robin’s grandchildren grow up, it’s just a fact that is never discussed.
Garrett’s children are very different and have tricky relationships with their parents. Alice, the eldest, is the sensible one who sees her mother as irresponsible and flighty. Then there’s Lily who makes decisions with her heart instead of her head. The two sisters are polar opposites and it’s prevented them from forming a strong relationship. Finally, there is David who is the black sheep of the family. He is quiet and reserved as a child, which is why everyone isn’t really surprised when loses touch with everyone. One of the key themes of French Braid is masculinity. Tyler presents several forms of masculinity within the book and shows how difficult it can be to meld these together. Robin doesn’t understand his son and it irreconcilably changes their dynamic.
French Braid is such an unassuming but impactful book. It is funny and heartbreaking in equal measure. The narrative is split between different third-person perspectives. This is something that I’m not always a fan of but it’s fascinating seeing the family from different points of view. The jumps in time also just seem to make sense. You get the feeling that we’re witnessing the significant moments in their lives and that it all works pretty organically. As my first taste of Anne Tyler, this was a great starting point. It’s poignant and fun but it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of family life. I really enjoyed every word in this book and will certainly pick up more Tyler very soon.