French Braid by Anne Taylor
It’s always exciting when Anne Tyler gives us another book. The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Digging to America, amongst many others, are all marvels of insight and eloquence that I, for one, return to again and again.
French Braid is no exception. There is the same exquisite attention to language and in evoking those small everyday occurrences which make both story and character feel true and unique. As with many of Tyler’s novels, the focus is on family and the narrative weaves amongst several decades to create a long view of the Garretts. The holiday where we first meet them is both their first and last, and perceptively delivers a view of the parents, Mercy and Robin and their three children, Alice, Lily and David. This is a middle-class family, conventional, responsible but with the kind of quirks which moves Tyler’s portrayal of them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. She convincingly presents us with the intimacy, yet the separateness which family so frequently represents; ‘everybody was separate…. A passerby would never guess the Garretts even knew each other. They looked so scattered, so lonesome.’
The narrative moves on to span several decades, from the time when the children are young to when, they themselves are parents. The shift in points of view allows the reader to move amongst the family members, discovering truths and nuances about characters they have previously glimpsed, guessed at. There is both humour and pathos as they negotiate irritations, hurts, rifts, and attachment.
The novel explores both the constraints and the tenderness of marriage. The adult selves of the children Alice, Lily and David once were, are still clearly evident as they strive for individual change and distinctiveness. The motif of the French braid- the title- symbolizes the binding of family, the imprint which is left even when the braid is released; ‘you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.’
Reviewer: Paddy Richardson
Penguin Random House