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Posted on 6 Oct 2022 in Fiction |

ANNE TYLER French Braid. Reviewed by CJ Pardey

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist demonstrates there is little she doesn’t know about human nature.

Anne Tyler’s most recent novel, her twenty-fourth, French Braid covers familiar territory. If this was said about any other novelist it might be a criticism. However, with Anne Tyler most readers who know and love her novels will smile a little to themselves at the description and immediately go out and buy the book.

Set in Baltimore, like many of her novels, French Braid is about families, specifically three generations of the Garrett family, and about how families do and don’t get on. As Tolstoy wrote – ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ French Braid explores the  ways in which the Garrett family might qualify as an unhappy family.

Like most novelists, Anne Tyler is rarely forthcoming about her writing methods, but she did admit recently to being interested in what small behaviours can reveal about character. Now 80 years old, she puts her observations of these small behaviours to good use: French Braid makes clear there is little Anne Tyler does not know about human nature.

While Mercy Garrett might seem the main character, there is detail and depth in at least four other characters. Robin Garrett is quickly revealed when we learn he was the only one of Mercy’s suitors to call her Miss Wellington. When she was young, Alice, the eldest of Mercy and Robin’s children, liked to imagine herself a narrator of her own life, and on one occasion she tells us ‘Alice loved her father very much, but sometimes she despaired of him.’

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing overly dramatic in French Braid – there rarely is in an Anne Tyler novel. There is a distancing in the second generation of Garrett family, which feeds into a further distancing in the third generation. The novel begins with Serena, a third-generation Garrett, at the Philadelphia train station in the days when the Philadelphia train station ‘still had the kind of information board that clickety-clacked as the various gate assignments rolled up’. You’d be forgiven for thinking we must be in the 1950s, but the novel begins in 2010 and roams backwards and forwards from there. At the station Serena sees a young man who might or might not be her cousin. That she doesn’t recognise her cousin amazes her boyfriend and prompts the reader to wonder what the story is behind the distancing in the Garrett family.

Anne Tyler deftly weaves, much like a French braid, the story of three generations of Garretts. While Mercy Garrett, the matriarch of the family, provides more than enough story to fulfil the role as the main protagonist, Tyler also gives enough heft to a large cast of characters to make the reader care about all of them. Mercy Garrett, having ‘dutifully stuck around, fixed untold thousands of meals, cleaned house each day, and then risen the next day and cleaned the same house all over again’, feels she has earned the right to leave her husband. Tyler has written before about disappearing wives and mothers. In Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead walks away from her family on a beach holiday and when finally located, explains that she just liked ‘the thought of beginning again from scratch’. Mercy Garrett also walks away from her family, but rather than just walking off down the beach, Mercy disappears slowly enough for her husband, the hapless Robin, not to ever have to accept that she has gone. ‘Both Robin and Mercy were dead now – Robin less than a year after Mercy, as if he had seen no point carrying on without her.’ Clever Mercy. Clever Anne Tyler.

Unlike Delia Grinstead, Mercy has a clear plan of how she wishes to live. She is an artist, and will earn her living painting portraits of people’s houses, but not of the front of the house, or rooms in the house, but just one small part of the house.

‘Have you ever tried painting the whole of the whole scene in detail, instead of just one part?’ asks a prospective client.

‘Well, of course!’ Mercy tells him. ’Anyone can do that. But I am aiming for something a little more meaningful. I want to zero in on the single feature that reveals a house’s soul.’

Mercy in some ways is very much like Anne Tyler, who zeros in on the single feature that reveals the soul of the story.

The wonder of French Braid is that Mercy’s leaving is so gentle, so carefully done, by both Mercy and Tyler, that whatever later developments occur in the family, namely the distancing of first cousins, the ‘blame’, which unhappy families are always looking to apportion, cannot all be laid at Mercy’s door. And rather than meet some readers’ expectations for the dramatic reveal – and the drama is there, notwithstanding that devout Anne Tyler readers are almost one hundred per cent certain it won’t be something overly dramatic – the reason one of Mercy and Robin’s children chooses to simply remove himself from the family is as plausible as it is understated. That is the marvel of Anne Tyler.

Anne Tyler French Braid Chatto & Windus 2022 PB 256pp $29.99

Catherine Pardey has reviewed for Rochford Street Review and The Beast.

You can buy French Braid from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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