Anne Tyler’s 24th novel French Braid opens in 2010 in Philadelphia train station. We find the teenage Serena, who has the ‘usual Garrett-family blue’ eyes, with her boyfriend James, waiting for a train back to Baltimore, where they’re at university together. Serena runs into her cousin Nicholas – although she’s not certain it’s him – and doesn’t seem especially keen to speak to him. There’s an awkward meeting; then Serena and James go to catch their train. A sense of unease hangs over the whole encounter. James speaks for the reader when he says: ‘Maybe there’s some deep dark secret in your family’s past.’ Uncovering this secret is at the heart of the novel. The ‘braid’ of the title is a metaphor for the intricate knots of love and obligation that bind families together but which may also come to feel like shackles.
From that near contemporary beginning, French Braid spools back through time, seeking to pinpoint the moment at which the wound in the Garrett family is first opened. It’s 1959 and the patriarch, Robin Garrett, has taken his family on their first ever holiday. His wife Mercy sees the break as an opportunity to work on her painting. Alice, the eldest daughter, is 17. For her, the trip is ‘nothing to look forward to’ and we perceive the days at Deep Creek Lake largely from her perspective. Lily, the middle girl, immediately falls in love with a preppy neighbour whose family own a lakeside holiday home. Then there’s David, still a child, a sensitive, tender soul. Already we can see the tensions that animate the family dynamic. As Alice says to herself, watching her parents and siblings by the lake: ‘A passerby would never guess the Garretts even knew each other. They looked so scattered, so lonesome.’
The novel then traces the lives of the family, their successes and defeats, their loves and losses. As soon as David is safely packed off to college, Mercy moves out of the family home to live in a rented studio, a place she keeps obsessively clean and free of emotional ties. It isn’t a separation as much as a physical distancing – Robin in particular works hard (although, we learn, unsuccessfully) to ensure that his children don’t discover their parents’ unusual domestic arrangements.
What Tyler does so well is to arrange set pieces that serve to represent the intricate way the family evolves over time. Some are glancing – the first time the family meet David’s wife Greta and his stepdaughter Emily is a brief but brilliant illustration of the space that has opened up between David and the rest of the family. Others are more studied: Robin’s attempt to throw a party to celebrate his and Mercy’s 50th wedding anniversary is tender and painful in equal measure.
French Braid finishes with a new generation of Garretts getting on in a world that has been changed dramatically by the pandemic. We realise that, through this study of a family, we’ve been delivered something larger and more ambitious: a portrait of a nation at a time of crisis. It seems that Tyler is saying that in the very awkwardness and angst of her archetypical family lies something essentially American, entirely resilient. Or, as David’s straight-talking wife puts it: ‘This country was settled by dissidents and malcontents and misfits and adventurers. Thorny people.’
Those thorns are wounding, but they are also protective, and once you work past them there is the beauty of the rose. French Braid is a family saga of uncommon subtlety and grace, a novel which shows that, at 80, Anne Tyler is still amongst the very best writers around.