I’m turning this book over and over in my mind. I will for awhile because it’s such an insightful study of a family’s humanity. It’s no surprise that French Braid is beautifully written. It’s by Anne Tyler, who I really should have returned to sooner. Years ago, I read The Accidental Tourist and I never forgot how lovely her writing is. French Braid does not disappoint. Tyler reminds us that we are forever entwined with family even if we are not that close to them or are all but estranged. And there need not be an “aha” moment or a terrible secret that led to this distance. We are complicated. We are oblivious. We assume a lot about the people we spend our earliest years with and the people we marry or partner with and these assumptions spiral us into fixed opinions and patterns.
This is a story of the Garretts — Dad Robin, the insecure plumber who isn’t quite sure why Mercy, daughter of the owner of a successful plumbing supply store picked him. Mercy, who remains something of a cypher but we know that she is so absorbed in creating her (possibly mediocre) art that Alice, her eldest daughter had to make sure the family had food on the table from a young age. Lily, the “problem” child who we first meet as a boy crazy teenager with little to no oversight. David, the later in the marriage son, with a terrific imagination, whose hands on concrete things father is forever disappointed in him, or is he?
This portrait of a family is brilliantly set up for us in the very beginning when Serena, Lily’s college age daughter, has just traveled to Philadelphia with her boyfriend to meet his parents. As they leave the station, she mentions that she thinks a young man on the platform is her cousin, but she isn’t sure and she doesn’t approach him. This sets up the, “we know each other, but we don’t know each other” truth of the Garrett family. They don’t talk openly with one another, so they spend a lot of time protecting the family from learning about things everyone in fact knows. It is so clever, this insight into some very odd human behavior that keeps people apart emotionally as they misguidedly protect secrets for others. The reader will generally recognize these folks, although Mercy is a definite outlier in her choices. Since Robin was a workaholic, it would be fair to say their three children were not actively parented. Alice, Lily and David then find partners and have children who have children. New relationships. New stories. Old stories. All the way up to the COVID-19 lockdown period.
Take any family. Take any individual. Ann Tyler can make their complicated internal selves real to us, make us see their impact on others and put it all together in a remarkable, sticks with us story. At a family vacation home, my mother left a number of Tyler novels on the shelves. I’ll be reading them this summer.