My relationship with Anne Tyler seems to me like a fine wine — it improves with age. I marvel at her ability to recycle familiar themes and reconstitute them. It is incredible to think that she has been examining middle-and-working-class Baltimorean families for almost 60 years and is still able to glean the tiniest, subtlest observations that bring her characters to life, and contribute to their authentic veneer. There is no such thing as a bad Anne Tyler novel: they exist on a sliding scale that wavers between good and great. This one is somewhere in the middle, which means it’s definitely worth your time.
French Braid is a novel of unraveled domesticity. But the splintering of the Garrett family doesn’t originate from a seismic event; there is no great cataclysm that disentangles their familial ties. Their fracture is almost organic; a split that takes generations to finally acknowledge, but evidence of which is pockmarked throughout their history, the most conspicuous being Mercy’s decision to move into her art studio, away from the family home still occupied by Robin, her husband, and father to their three children.
Decades are condensed into Tyler’s 250 pages, each chapter encompassing a different member of the family in a new decade, opening in 2010, then spooling backwards to the 1950s before proceeding onwards to the present day. The power of Tyler’s prose often lies in the silences and the gaps: she is not a loquacious writer, and she trusts her reader to texturize what is unstated but assumed. She is a master of both language and storytelling; of throwing open the windows of unsuspecting families and spotlighting their flaws, paradoxes and beauty with panache and poignancy.