FRENCH BRAID is quintessential Anne Tyler: a closely observed, compassionate story of a quirky family

French Braid

By Anne Tyler

Knopf: March 22, 2022

256 pages, $27.00

French Braid is quintessential Anne Tyler. Few writers depict the mundane moments that make up family life as well as she does. Here, we follow the Garrett family of Baltimore over six decades, from 1959 to 2020. Each chapter, set a decade apart, focuses on a different character, so we get to view family members from several perspectives.

Robin runs the family hardware store while Mercy is a stay-at-home-mother who paints when she has time. Robin is resolutely practical while Mercy clearly has mixed feelings about motherhood (a recurring theme in Tyler’s work). But they muddle along until the kids are older, when Mercy rents a room above a neighbor’s garage as a studio and begins to spend more and more time there. Sensible Alice, flighty and boy crazy Lily, and smart, shy David manage well enough with their slightly odd parents and each other. As the decades pass, their children enter the story, taking us through Robin and Mercy’s sunset years. Like all Tyler books, the dialogue is so natural and spot-on that it will have you laughing and wiping away a tear even if you don’t adore her characters.

Tyler is, as always, astutely observant and honest about these people, but her light touch makes the narrative essentially compassionate. It’s a tribute to her skill that most of the characters are not especially likable, but they are very human. Their flaws and eccentricities make them recognizable. If we don’t necessarily have someone like these people in our family, we probably have members who interact in similarly inconsistent and frustrating—and occasionally endearing—ways. It’s because we know them intimately and our lives are so closely connected that we also (usually) tolerate or even indulge them. Each family is its own world, with its own gravitational pull, for better or worse.

As youngest child David realizes once he is a parent, families are like a French braid. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” Washington Post book critic Ron Charles described the essence of French Braid perfectly in his review: “Who captures that poignant paradox so well as Anne Tyler, our patron saint of the unremarked outlandishness of ordinary life?”

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