As a little girl, Serena had asked herself the same question. Why were his parents, his aunt Alice and his uncle David, Nicholas’s father, so distant from each other? Was David adopted? Was he “written from a will that included his two sisters”? “Or [was it that] some kind of family dispute had gotten out of hand, the kind of outrageous remarks that a person couldn’t forgive”? Young Serena “reads a lot of novels” and her imagined scenarios reflect the fictions she has consumed.
But because this is an Anne Tyler novel, there are no festering secrets, no dramatic wrongdoings or dark mysteries to uncover. Instead, Tyler will slowly and painstakingly show us how minor hurts and disappointments gradually build up over long periods of time, how estrangement happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, and how the bonds so weakened nevertheless bind very different people together. in a family.
When the first section of the novel from Serena’s point of view ends, we return, somewhat confusingly and abruptly, to the late 1950s in a section told from Alice’s point of view. From then on, “French Braid” advances chronologically, with jumps of seven to 12 years between the eight sections of the novel. Each section is told from the third-person perspective of a different family member.
The second section describes a 1959 Garrett family lake vacation and establishes the tense dynamic. Even as they reunite for what is supposed to be a wonderful summer romance, each has their own agenda: Robin, who runs a plumbing supply business, his wife, Mercy, and their three children, teenaged Alice and Lily and 7-year-old David, emerge as discrete atoms, uncomfortable in each other’s presence and desperate for autonomy and freedom. Tensions abound – between bookish Alice and her boy-crazed sister, Lily; between responsible, nurturing Alice and her fickle mother, who struts around in glamorous bathing suits “like Esther Williams might wear”, jumps on the family unit to draw or paint, and fails to cook the family meals; between shy and reluctant David and his aggressive father.
We then jump forward 11 years to September 1970, with Mercy and Robin facing empty nests after David leaves for college, and with Mercy deciding to rent, then occupy more and more definitely, a paint shop. The following sections include a set about and around Easter 1982, told from Lily’s perspective; Mercy and Robin’s 50th birthday in 1990, which delves into Robin’s thoughts of his wife and children; and others refracted through the prisms of their grandchildren.
The final section of the novel, set during the confusing and terrifying first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, finally delves into David’s inner self and his tender feelings for his wife, son, and young grandson. It’s David who offers the somewhat silly analogy between a French braid and a family: “When she undoes it, her hair would still be in waves, little squiggles remaining, for hours and hours. That’s how families work. You think you are free of it, but you are never truly free; the ripples are set forever.
The novel’s braided narrative perspectives allow readers to observe the characters from multiple points of view, in fact from different frames of understanding and explanation, so that a figure that first appears as an X is revealed later be also or rather a Y. We watch them develop in interesting ways over time in ways that confirm and undermine earlier impressions and trends. But the technique also requires that we be kept a little aside and prevented from investing the characters with the greatest enthusiasm. After the first 30 pages in Serena’s head, the novel never really comes back to her. She, and likewise the other characters, can feel more like a narrative phase – succeeding the previous one and on the way to the next – and less like a personality in their own right.
There’s a lot to admire about “French Braid,” including what Cathleen Schine has described as Tyler’s effective “unstyled style,” penetrating axioms about family (“it’s what families do for each other — hiding some uncomfortable truths, allowing a little self-delusion”), and a final section on families during the pandemic that is truly moving. But despite its many virtues, “French Braid” is overall a rather pallid outing for Tyler.
By Anne Tyler
Knopf, 256 pages, $27
Priscilla Gilman is a former Professor of English Literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: Memory of Unexpected Joyand “The Critic’s Daughter” (forthcoming from Norton).