Tied Together

Tyler returns to what she does best, writing about families and making small events paramount.

French Braid by Anne Tyler. Knopf. pp. 256. $27.00.

Anne Tyler has been writing about families since the 1960s. In her 24th novel, French Braid, she continues that tradition following the Garrett’s from the 1950s to the present day. The first chapter opens up with a college student, Serena, wondering if a man in the crowd is her cousin (he is). Her boyfriend is shocked by her lack of familiarity with family. Already we catch a glimpse into the heart of Tyler’s writing: capturing the minute pushes and pulls that bind and unwind a family. Really, the insistent unmasking of the ordinary to reveal the subtly tragic makes the book shine.

We meet the Garrett clan—headed by Robin and Mercy—in 1959 on their (one and only) family vacation to Deep Creek Lake. As always, every character is fully fleshed out: the oldest, Alice, is responsible and aloof; Lily, fifteen, is in the throes of puberty, preoccupied with boys; and the youngest, David, is timid and not as adventurous as his dad would like. Each of Tyler’s chapters follows one family member through sudden marriages, surprise anniversary parties, train rides, and funerals. These scenes are charming, wryly humorous, and move the Garrett family timeline along to present day.

French Braid is classic Anne Tyler, almost to a fault—if writing about middle-class America in a realist fashion is some sort of sin. The fact that she makes the little things seem larger (more important) than large things gives her novels a unique air and grounds them in the world around us. A world that we recognize and see even more clearly than before. This aspect of her writing is mirrored in the novel through Mercy Garrett, who paints a scene but makes only one object—usually something small like a dropped toy—clear while the rest remains out of focus, blurry. 

Besides, what is a family but a network of interactions interwoven over time? And though every unhappy family’s unhappiness may be unique, the underlying causes can be familiar. The strained relationships between Tyler’s characters may seem ordinary or unworthy of illustration, but they function as the cement of the life portrayed in the pages—holding together the plot. Lily’s jealousy of always having Thanksgiving at her sister Alice’s house and not hers may seem petty. Yet, it is something that many people have felt at one time or another. Patriarch Robin Garrett’s ignorance of the meaning behind Mercy spending more and more time at her studio (spending nights and not even coming home to fix breakfast!) shows the sort of ignorant bliss some people stubbornly hold on to (though it is obvious to their children what’s going on). In each sister, brother, mother, and nephew, we see ourselves—or at least a facet of personality we’re guilty of on occasion. 

These problems between characters are usually discovered through a chapter dedicated to a third character’s narrative. David’s distancing from his parents—his dad specifically—plays a larger role than at first glimpse. It is not just young adult rebelliousness, as one might think when seeing him off at college hardly ever calling his parents. There’s something deeper at work here. Throughout, the answer to why David has drifted away from the family is slowly revealed. It is the small things (once more) that are truly monumental in the end. And it is through the conversations of others—usually when they’re complaining that he didn’t call to tell them he suddenly got married—that the reader learns about the despised summer job his father forced on him or some other small argument. 

French Braid collects the stories that might escape telling around the campfire or kitchen table as well as those that are so rehashed they’ve become a family legend. Tyler takes these stories, familiar to most in one way or the other, and creates a family quilt that stretches several generations. Though other books like coeval Jane Smiley’s Iowa family trilogy (beginning with Some Luck) also deal with investigating the ties that bind and the events that separate families, Tyler works both on the minute and seismic scales—wonderfully balanced. She makes sure to focus on occasions the majority of people can relate to but includes unique experiences that make the characters and the book original and fresh. Though the themes undertaken are old territory, they are cozy, creating a pleasant and pleasurable read for old fans and new admirers.

Buy a copy at The Bookshop.

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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