French Braid

Written by Anne Tyler
Review by Sarah Johnson

Anne Tyler knows families: the ebb and flow of relationships across decades, the strengths and foibles of individual members, and the ties connecting them even if they don’t particularly like each other. The chance meeting of two cousins in the Philadelphia train station in 2010 invigorates this smoothly paced, emotionally piercing saga of a Baltimore family over three generations. “Even when the Garretts did get together, it never seemed to take, so to speak,” reflects one granddaughter early on, wondering “what makes a family not work.”

The year 1959 marks the first group vacation for parents Robin and Mercy Garrett and their three children, who spend a week together at a cabin on Deep Creek Lake. Reliable Alice, just seventeen, isn’t thrilled about the trip. Lily, two years younger, has a summer romance with a college guy, which her parents are surprisingly blasé about; and David is a sharp-eyed seven-year-old. Mercy’s attitude toward her children and husband is one of distant fondness. After her children grow up and pursue their own lives, she relocates full-time into her art studio, acknowledging only to herself (not to her adoring husband) that the move isn’t temporary.

The Garretts’ actions range from quirkily amusing (Alice’s talent for cooking meals out of random odds and ends) to scandalous to sad and upsetting. Mercy is ironically named, since readers—animal lovers especially—may feel that she deserves very little of it, given her self-centeredness. It’s also fair to recognize that she fulfills the era’s expectations of marriage and motherhood despite being cut out for neither role. In her wryly observant way, Tyler grants Greta, the older, foreign-born divorcee David marries, to his family’s befuddlement, the wisdom to see her in-laws’ hopes and fears more clearly than anyone. This story shines with grace and compassion as it reflects oft-unspoken truths about human nature.