I love the deft way Anne Tyler draws you into the lives of her characters. A few pages go by, and suddenly you feel you’ve known them for years. Then the story is over, and you wish they’d have stayed around longer.
There’s so much to like about French Braid, though it’s one of Tyler’s sadder stories. A family vacation in 1959 sets the pattern for the generations to come. Robin and Mercy Garrett’s three children grow remote from their parents’ lives, and mostly from each other. Even Mercy feels compelled to start an alternate life of her own. Like all families, this one suffers from personality clashes and lingering grudges. Yet, tenuous bonds keep them connected.
Like all her novels, this one has almost no plot; rather, it’s an experience of characters and their relationships. Tyler’s empathy with them appears in every scene. She describes Mercy “drifting back through her past like someone wandering through an old house,” realizing only after her father’s death how much he loved her. Mercy and Robin’s own children are so different that walls spring up between them as they grow, until they find their individual places in the world.
Like all families, the Garretts have endearing qualities. Mercy likes to paint home interiors, searching for the one object that embodies the soul of the house. Her grandson Robby insists on wearing baggy clothes because he thinks he’s allergic to seams. A granddaughter named Kendall becomes Candle to everyone because she kept mispronouncing her name as a child. An especially touching chapter involves Robin’s efforts to express his enduring love for his wife after fifty years of marriage.
This is Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel, produced over a span of fifty-eight years. As a longtime fan, I recommend French Braid to anyone who enjoys stories about families. No one I know of understands or writes about them any better.