Jher, thankfully, is now Anne Tyler’s fourth novel since she suggested that 2015 A spool of blue Thread was going to be his last. We might rightly think that some of the things she’s said in recent interviews aren’t exactly set in stone, not least because French braida warm family saga set between 1959 and late summer 2020, seems to represent a reversal of his intuition that “it would really be a mistake on my part to suddenly start talking about the coronavirus at this point in the one of my books”. Responding to a question about whether Covid might break his aversion to putting topical elements into his work, she said: “It would derail the private little story I am trying to tell.”
After his previous novel, the formidable Red By the side of the roadgenerously centered on the narrow-minded point of view of a middle-aged computer scientist, French braid goes back to type: a multi-generational set piece that will have fans marking their Tyler bingo cards, empty nests taking left turns later in life, and family divisions surrounding odd siblings.
Set, as usual, in Baltimore, it’s the story of the Garretts: husband and wife Robin and Mercy, children Alice, Lily and David. We meet them on a rare vacation on a lake in Maryland, with the teenage girls and their younger brother, a curious seven-year-old who plays pretend with his toys. But Robin, a plumber-turned-tradesman, has other ideas, and his brutal attempt to break David’s reluctance to swim will simmer family tensions for decades.
As far as trauma storylines go, it’s not exactly A little life, sure, but Tyler has a keen eye for how small moments can have unpredictable effects on a family’s mutual understanding. The rift, all the more serious for being largely unspoken, only gets worse when David, set to head off to college in 1970, is forced into a character summer job with the one of Robin’s plumber friends, rather than volunteering with a community. Theatre troupe; Robin wants to teach him that being a man means you can’t always choose.
Among the ironies of Tyler’s reputation as a writer of domestic fiction — that loaded term — is that she’s a keen observer of masculinity. In another recent interview, she spoke about her feeling that “it must be very difficult to be a man – difficult to become a man, when you’re young and not very sure of yourself, but you’re expected to be in load now”. When Robin explains her eagerness to swim David by saying that her sister Alice found out when she was four, a line from Alice’s perspective tells us that she was actually eight: “But her father doesn’t care.” wasn’t worried about it. There were advantages to being a girl and not expecting anything from you.
The novel is broken down into seven sections, each of which is an individual third-person narrative discreetly tied to the point of view of a particular family member, from parents to grandchildren, generating intimacy by showing characters acting out of character. a way in which we have been prepared by the way others see them. . Each segment takes place a decade apart, sometimes a little more, sometimes less, which contributes to the novel’s pleasantly relaxed feeling that Tyler doesn’t squeeze his characters into a design so much as let them be. And yet, there’s nothing cowardly about it: witness the fleeting, nonchalantly dispensed detail that Robin and Mercy were married on July 5, 1940, a slyly suggestive date – the day after independence – in a romance shaped by search for autonomy of each character.
The best and funniest chapter concerns Mercy’s plan, the day after David’s robbery, to move her belongings bit by bit, almost imperceptibly, to a studio she rents to pursue her ambitions as a painter. Potential hurdles arise instantly: first with the news that Lily is pregnant by a man who is not her husband, then with the expectation of Mercy’s elderly landlord that she can care for her cat while attends a family emergency in another state.
As the story moves closer to the present, it’s no surprise that Tyler eschews the dystopian energies of the pandemic, which have proven catnip to other writers. I suspect she decided to write about it because she realized that for each of us, the virus ultimately has been (and is) a “little private story”. Tyler, against the grain, focuses on the potential of Covid to bring about reunions and reconnections, as David, now a retired teacher, finds himself called into lockdown to care for his grandson. It hurts nothing to say that, in the final paragraph of bravery, Tyler’s use of a face mask is typical of his generous spirit, turning a symbol of disturbance into one of great tenderness.
French braid can’t upset a fan’s ranking of Tyler’s novels, in the way Red By the side of the road was a late entry, but it’s definitely enjoyable, and at this point any Tyler book is a giveaway. Funny, poignant, generous, unafraid of death and disappointment but never gloomy or overworked, he suggests that there is always new light to be shed, whatever the situation, with just another twist of the prism.