French Braid by Anne Tyler

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Families drift apart for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s geography, sometimes it’s more complicated: aging, death, trauma, or hidden dislike. On the surface the cause may be unclear, leaving people to wonder why a sibling never calls. But the person who drifts away knows why, even if they never explain it. Such intricacies form the warp and weft of Anne Tyler’s new novel, French Braid, released on March 22. 

In modern, hyper-mobile America, this separation happens a lot. People leave home and move around the country. It becomes an excuse for children to see little of parents and siblings less of one another. In her latest work, the Baltimore-based author follows the Garretts, a family also based in Baltimore, over three generations—deftly documenting the separating family and the role loneliness plays. She delineates their love and the distance caused by pain in a book that, despite its pervasive cheer, asks why people gently abandon each other.

Especially well-depicted in French Braid is the Garretts’ puzzlement over a brother’s total removal of himself from the family. Living in the Philadelphia suburbs, which are not all that far from Baltimore, he makes the miles seem farther. Everyone wonders why—even the reader—until it is finally sketched with a few revealing strokes. The cause is almost mundane, and yet seemingly small actions loom so large in his history that he drifts away from his family. It’s something most anyone can relate to.

By the time the book reaches the third generation of Garretts, it’s hard to keep track of all of them. But Tyler sidesteps this difficulty by zeroing in on a handful of the younger generation at moments of profound separation from the family. Those separations may appear superficial, with an aunt moving away, for instance, but their implications reverberate for those left behind until there’s only one remaining clan member in Baltimore. Other separations are more shocking, but in either case, they herald an ending and usher in a new stage of loneliness.

Still some of these endings lead to new beginnings, new friends, new spouses. Life goes on and it—and Tyler’s book—is not all about loss, but also about how people can recover from loss. This is all done with Tyler’s characteristic light touch. A somber theme set off by her gentle, cheerful style. The melancholy glimmers mostly below a bright, acute, and often funny surface.

“He and Bentley liked to stand waist deep, with their arms folded across their chests and talk about sewage or something,” Tyler writes, describing two plumbers on vacation at Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake.

She also includes dry, lambent observations: “There were advantages to being a girl and having nothing much expected of you,” says one of the plumber’s daughters during the same vacation. 

But if the surface sparkle and occasional levity becomes so enchanting that you mistake this book as a bit of entertaining fluff, you’ll miss the whole picture. This White, middle class family is the type you’d expect to have, or want, a white picket fence. But in French Braid, “ordinary” is a tricky category where truth and authenticity reside. “Ordinary” is the repository of life’s complications. For instance, after dropping their son off at college, two empty nesters start internal emotional journeys in opposite directions as soon as they begin the drive home. “Generally they stayed sunk in the sort of silence that radiates unspoken thoughts—complicated conflicting thoughts cluttering the air inside the car.”

As the title suggests, this book braids together unique, singular strands. The eight characters presented in depth, stand forth in their carefully depicted individuality, a few in their irreducible aloneness, like a mother who believes her children don’t know that she has abandoned their father. As with so many of Tyler’s creations, they stay with you a long time—sometimes you see aspects of them in people you know. The humility, the modesty of the presentation can mislead the inattentive reader. Everyone here has depths from which issues rise noisily to the surface, so they cannot be ignored.

Throughout it all is Tyler’s attentive ear for American life. This novel takes place along the Acela corridor, spanning Baltimore, Manhattan, and the outskirts of Philadelphia. For the many of us who’ve lived along the East Coast, French Braid captures the region with subtle hints. Though centered in Baltimore, the story nonetheless reaches out beyond it, just as the characters, deceivingly simple, reveal truths about life that are anything but. 

French Braid, by Anne Tyler, is is available wherever books are sold.