French Braid by Anne Tyler review

A generation-spanning slice of life.

Published by Chatto & Windus.

IT’S A brief exchange between a married couple that explains the title of this, Anne Tyler’s 24th novel. David asks Greta the term for “that braid that starts high up on little girls’ heads.” “They would start with two skeins of hair high up near her temples, very skinny and tight, and then join in with two thicker braids lower down.”

He muses that when the braid would be let down from his sister’s hair when they were younger, “her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles for hours and hours after” and that “that’s how families work too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

Call it a domestic drama or a family saga, French Braid is an interwoven set of vignettes into the life of the Garrett family, starting with grandparents Robin and Mercy, then to their three children and then further down to their grandchildren. But not in that order. Like a plait of hair, the stories flow and twist and double back on each other, while remaining interlinked.

The first introduction to the family is through Serena, who in 2010 is a young college student meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Waiting at the train station for their trip back from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Serena spots someone who could be her cousin.

Reluctant to make the first move in confirming the man’s identity, her boyfriend is the one who strikes up conversation with the stranger, who confirms his relationship to Serena, and after a little awkward chit-chat and catch-up and how’s your mother’s hip, they exchange a polite goodbye, much to the amusement of the boyfriend, who is as close to his eleven cousins as Serena is distant from her five.

Hopping back in time to summer 1959, the Garrett family is about to take their first ever summer vacation. 17-year-old Alice, 15-year-old Lily and David, who is seven and the most enthusiastic about the holiday to a lakeside cabin, are away for a week with their mother and father, whose plans are to paint and to teach David how to swim respectively.

This chapter belongs to Alice, who is at that age in a largely sensible teenager’s life where she is cagily critical of her parent’s parenting, being protective over her little brother and offering withering advice to her sister’s boy-crazy choices.

The lakeside cabin and the little town they go to for supplies is described in sumptuous detail, and you get a real feel for the family and their surroundings. It’s a fairly hum-drum holiday, even when considering the two events that change the course of the Garrett’s lives; a panic in the lake and the advances of a handsome, rich college student whose family owns their own holiday home further down the lake.

This slice of the life of the Garrett family probably gives the most insight into their dynamics, and how their relationships with each other ebb and flow. Each member of the first two generations and a handful of the third gets a third-person narrative perspective, and each chapter covers a time specific in their lives that never contains a big event as such, but perceptively examines the minutiae of family life that gradually adds up to grievances and resentments that can simmer for years.

The most dynamic character is Lily, the spitfire middle child whose complicated love life is both chaotic and rewarding. The trajectory of each of the characters is largely not straightforward, each have their ups and downs, some steeper than others, and Lily’s is perhaps the most dramatic, while still having that believable, even commonplace feeling of everyday, messy life.

French Braid isn’t concerned with plot, but more the nuances of the family. Each chapter is an exquisite little short story, linked by the family Garrett and offering wonderful insights into how the mundanity and normality of life shapes a person, a household over generations like a river moulding a rock.

There is a light touch to French Braid, making it an enjoyable, consuming read buoyed with humour and pathos, while allowing the poignancy to seep in. It’s one for the bookshelf, to go back to time and again as your perspective changes with the years.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 25 05 22.

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