French Braid by Anne Tyler: A review
It may seem that this is the story that Tyler has been writing over and over through the years. We've met these insular Baltimore families in the pages of her books throughout her career, but what could be tiresome in the hands of a less accomplished writer never fails to entertain as a theme in her novels. For one thing, even though all of her families have things in common (e.g., Baltimore), they are all different; the members have their unique personalities and their idiosyncratic, often quirky, reactions to situations. And for better or worse, members of the family are all bound together, not unlike the strands of a French braid.
In this case, the family is the Garretts and we get their story from the 1950s to the present day. They are a familiar and somewhat typical group. Robin and Mercy Garrett are middle-class and responsible people who have inherited the family plumbing supply store. When we meet them their three children consist of two teenage daughters and a seven-year-old son.
In 1959, the family takes their first and only vacation, a week at a rustic cabin on Deep Creek Lake. The children observe that their father "is not a born vacationer" and he doesn't really get into the spirit of the vacation. Mercy is an amateur painter and takes full advantage of the opportunity to practice her art. Their son David is not interested in learning to swim and prefers to spend his time playing with his GI figurines, while 15-year-old Lily, the younger daughter, becomes completely infatuated with a 21-year-old man who is vacationing nearby and who she fully expects is going to propose to her. The older daughter, Alice, a particularly sensitive observer, notes that everybody in her family is "separate" and "A passerby would never guess that the Garretts even knew each other. They looked so scattered, and so lonesome." In these descriptions, we can sense the trajectories of each of these characters' stories.
Each of the chapters in the book moves the family's story forward by about ten years. We see the children growing up, going to college, getting married, and having families. The bonds of Robin's and Mercy's marriage strain almost to the point of breaking but in the end they hold. It could be the story of almost any family.
And so it is with families that maintain their ties through the years. Even when you think you are somehow separate and different, the family impression on the strands of one's life remains. As David observes as an adult, "That's how families work. You think you are free of them, but you're never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever." Like the ripples in a French braid.
Is there anyone writing today who captures the essentials of the ordinary life any more vividly than Anne Tyler? Her characters are not in any way exceptional people. We can recognize ourselves in them. She writes of their daily lives and the choices they make. In almost every case, there are no big dramatic scenes to stick in our memories. Instead, there is just the chronicle of the everyday happenings in the lives of completely unremarkable people. That might sound boring but in Tyler's hands, it is entirely riveting.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars