French Braid

Rating: 5 out of 5.
French Braid book cover

Anne Tyler 2022

I’ve written discussion questions, free for use in your book club.

When Mercy Garrett paints a “house portrait” she highlights one small aspect of a home in minute detail. The doorknob, nightgown, chair leg is drawn into crystal focus, surrounded by vague shapes and colors that suggest the object’s surroundings.

That’s what Anne Tyler has done in her portrait of the Garrett family, headed by Mercy and her husband Robin. From 1959 to the 2020’s, readers (or listeners such as myself, who opted for the audiobook) follow that tight focus from character to character – Mercy who is struggling for breathing room, awkward Robin who is bewildered by his wife’s withdrawal, bossy oldest daughter Alice, wild child Lily, and the elusive David who shows up right on time, and always leaves early. Sometimes the focus is on relationships between two or more of the Garretts – including, eventually, the Garrett siblings’ spouses, children and grandchildren.

Anyone who has worked to craft a marriage with staying power, seen disappointment in a parent’s face, or made allowances for a beloved family member will relate to the Garretts’ evolution from mid-century tradition to the realities of the present day.

This is the first fiction I’ve read that is, at least partially, set in pandemic times and doesn’t shy away from addressing it in its narrative. (You know how every once in a while, after a few weeks or months, you suddenly remember how sweeping the changes have been over the past two years? It’s like remembering that you’ re standing a foot from the edge of a cliff. I experienced that feeling while typing the words “pandemic times.” But I digress.) Although the pandemic is more backdrop than plotline in this book, and only for a short passage, it was jarring to read phrases like ‘frontline workers’ and ‘self-quarantine’ after my cozy trip from 1959 right up to the brink of 2020.

If you grew up in the last half of the twentieth century, you might love this book. Anne Tyler paints pictures, uses focus – but she lets the pictures do the talking.

The audiobook is narrated- very slowly, but very beautifully – by Kimberly Farr.

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