Tyler brings together family stories in gripping new novel

No one handles multi-character gatherings better than Baltimore-based Anne Tyler, and a number of them spotlight her latest novel.

One family dominates them – Robin and Mercy Garrett and their three children, Alice, Lily and David, all of whom are as normal and eccentric as any family. The reader will smile and nod, acknowledging comments and actions similar to their own or those of people they know.

Photo by Diana Walker

Tyler’s latest novel spans decades, showing how the family members’ loyalty to each other is tested.


Photo by Diana Walker

Tyler’s latest novel spans decades and shows how the family members’ loyalty to one another is tested.

Although French Braid is relatively short, it offers a welcome variety of distractions from the worry and angst of today’s world.

Tyler opens the novel in 2010 and focuses on Lily’s daughter, Serena, and Serena’s boyfriend, James, as they return to Baltimore from Philadelphia; Serena was meeting James’ parents for the first time. This chapter is a kind of prelude to show the kinds of details explored by Tyler.

She continues, in the next seven chapters, to show how the Garretts develop over the years, catching up with them at multi-year intervals, from 1959 to the pandemic-ridden 2020.

Chapter 2 takes the Garretts on a rare beach vacation in 1959: it’s the first time Robin feels he can take a break from the business he runs, a plumbing supply store called Wellington’s. named after its founder, Mercy’s father. Alice is 17 and “well beyond the stage where traveling with her family could be kind of a thrill”. Lily is 15 and not happy that Robin won’t let her bring her high school boyfriend, basketball star Jump Watkins, but no sooner is she at the lake than she lures an older man named Trent. . David is seven years old and can’t wait to play on the beach.

In the third chapter, it’s 1970 and 18-year-old David is heading off to college, the last of the kids to leave home. Mercy feels sad: “In many ways, David was the child closest to her heart, although she expected to feel closer to the girls…Alice had always been so bossy and confident, and Lily was such a mess, really; but David had a kind of stillness about him and a quality of listening and caring that Mercy had come to appreciate over the past few years.

<p>French braid</p>
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<p>French braid</p>
<p>At this time, Alice is married to a man named Kevin and has a baby girl called Robby;  Lily is married to BJ and expecting – but she knows the father is an older married man named Morris.  As if to turn away from such developments, Mercy takes painting seriously.			</p>
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Over the next five chapters, Tyler shows how the family members’ loyalty to one another is tested, through events in 1982, 1990 (Mercy and Robin’s 50th anniversary), 1997, 2014. and the 2020 pandemic era. A major surprise is David’s marriage to a much older woman, a nurse named Greta. When Robin learns that Greta is 11 years older than David, he thinks to himself, “Well, it could have been worse. And they seemed happy. Although who knew, really? How could anyone know what was really going on in their children’s lives? »

Robin plans a birthday party in 1990 which will be a surprise for Mercy. At this time, Lily runs the plumbing store, and Mercy spends a lot of time in a place she has rented as an art studio. Her reaction to the party is memorable.

Tyler often surprises in his choice of which point of view will be used for a particular chapter. In the sixth chapter, for example, Mercy travels to New York with Alice’s daughter, Kendall (called Candle by her siblings since she called herself that as a child), and everything is connected from the point of view by Kendall.

A French braid isn’t mentioned until the last chapter when David, in an observation to Greta, says that when his daughter Emily undid her braids, “”her hair would still be in waves, little squiggles remaining, for hours and hours later. “” He goes on to say, “That’s also how families work. You think you’re free of it, but you never are. really free; the ripples are set forever.

Such is David’s vision, which seems rather dark, while the strength of the novel lies more in the delightful ways in which lives are intertwined, much like a beautifully knotted French braid.

Dave Williamson is the author of 10 books in Winnipeg, including the novel Visiting Fellow, about one man’s trip to Tasmania.

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Irene B. Bowles