“What makes a family not work?”
Anne Tyler’s multi-generational novel French Braid takes a look at the complications and peculiarities of family life. For outsiders, family dynamics are impossible to dissect, but sometimes, even for close relatives, those dynamics are equally murky. For the purposes of the novel, the Garrett family history begins with Mercy, the daughter of a man who owns a Baltimore plumbing supply shop. A frequent customer is plumber Robin, who may appear to come to shop, but who falls for Mercy. According to Robin, “all the plumbers in Baltimore were crazy about her,” but he won. Or did he? Mercy and Robin marry and they have 3 children: Lily, Alice and David.
The novel opens in 2010 with Serena, Alice’s daughter (Mercy’s granddaughter), returning from a visit with her boyfriend, James, to his parents for the first time. The meeting appeared to go well, but when Serena spies cousin Nicholas in the Philadelphia station, the incident drives a wedge between Serena and James and also sets in motion the idea that the Garrett family are not close. What happened?
Then the plot segues back to 1959 to the Garrett family’s first holiday since Robin and Mercy took over the plumbing supply shop. Mercy has to talk Robin into it, and the family take off for a week to Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. This holiday illustrates the family dynamics and divisions already firmly set in place: Mercy goes off on her own painting a lot, Robin buddies up with another dad, and 15-year-old Lily, who is sulking about leaving a boyfriend behind, quickly takes up with a much older boy. 17-year-old Alice, possibly the only ‘adult’ here, is the observer of her sister’s antics and notes that “the boys would flock to Lily.”
It seemed she gave off some kind of high-pitched signal that only male ears could detect. (Grown men as well as boys. Alice had noticed more than one friend’s father sending Lily that same sharp arrow of awareness.)
7-year-old David, an odd, introverted child, almost drowns. So much for the ‘family’ in family holiday.
Then the novel segues to the 70s with Lily and Alice married and David bringing home a girlfriend. As the years pass, Lily and Alice lead very different lives and see each other rarely. David “serves[s] as the family’s connector.” Years pass, and Mercy notes that “so many unexpected people seemed to edge unto a person’s life, once that person had children.” Lily’s second husband, as an outsider, talks about family subjects that the Garrett family have decided to ignore. To an outsider (and I mean not related by blood) some Garrett behaviour seems inexplicable.
“So, this is how it works,” she said. “This is what families do for each other–hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.”
“And little cruelties,” he said.
French Braid dissects family politics from the 50s through the beginnings of the pandemic and shows how relationships and patterns of behaviour are set in place. The great thing about these multi generational novels is that we follow established patterns of behaviour along their natural trajectories. No wonder families drift apart.
I thought French Braid was ok but didn’t love it, and this was due mostly to the only mildly interesting characters, and the rather sad cloud that hovers over the book. Mercy annoyed me and what she did with the cat was phenomenally wrong. That said, I enjoyed the dynamics between Mercy and Lily tremendously.