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French Braid

April 1, 2022

I spent an entire afternoon reading the new Anne Tyler novel, French Braid, and that’s the right way to enjoy it, if you have the uninterrupted time. It’s a family saga, and reading it made me wonder if all such sagas are told, at least implicitly, from the point of view of one of the older members of the family. Who else can see the significance of some of the otherwise-forgotten episodes when they recur with variations? While other authors occasionally use dramatic irony, Tyler’s perspective seems to me fully rooted in the older characters–mostly, in this novel, in Mercy, whose name resonates symbolically through the generations.

The title is also, of course, symbolic. It’s mentioned once, almost at the end of the novel, when Mercy’s youngest child, David, remembers his step-daughter’s braid and how, “when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterward….that’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

The way readers get to know Mercy’s family is first through her granddaughter Serena, who is otherwise a bit player in the family drama, a person so tenuously connected that when she sees her cousin Nicholas at a train station she’s not sure if it’s him or not. I love what Serena says about being from a small family and envying people with big ones: “she had envied her school friends with their swarms of relatives all mixed up and shrieking with laughter and fighting for space and attention. Some had stepsiblings, even, and stepmothers and stepfathers they could pick and choose at will and ostracize if things didn’t work out, like rich people discarding perfectly okay food while the undernourished gazed longingly from the sidelines.”

Gradually, though, readers see that Serena’s family is bigger than she realizes. Their story is continued from the point of view of Mercy’s daughter Alice. We get Alice’s perspective on a family vacation with her fifteen-year-old sister Lily and seven-year-old brother David. After that, we see what happens to Mercy and David after they’ve taken David off to college. As I read, I was sympathizing mostly with Mercy, who seems to be one of those Anne Tyler characters who find they want independence from their families late in life.

My ability to see things from Mercy’s point of view started to unwind when she started downsizing past the point of even utility. She moves some of her things to an apartment she’s rented as a painting studio and thinks “all the essentials were there now, and even those seemed excessive, because she’d envisioned her future life as taking place in an empty room. It was almost disturbing to find that a certain amount of clutter was creeping in by necessity: the teakettle on the hot plate, the dishcloth draped over the sink rim.” She still participates in family life, though, coming back to the house she shared with her husband Robin and organizing a Thanksgiving dinner to help her daughter Lily introduce her fiancée to her father.

I found Mercy much less sympathetic by the end of the novel. She tries not to care what anyone else thinks, but when she buys an electric blanket “she hid the controls behind one of the cushions so that nobody would suspect.” She agrees to take care of her landlord’s cat while he spends a few months in another city, taking care of a grandson while his daughter is in the hospital. And it seems that she gets along with the cat just fine: “Desmond turned out to be less intrusive than she’d feared. He wasn’t a nagger or a whiner; nor was he a lap cat.” Despite this, however, when the landlord has to move away and asks her if she will keep the cat, she agrees to do it and then immediately she puts the cat in a carrier and dumps him at an animal shelter. I pretty much lost all sympathy for her at this point.

Not liking Mercy anymore, initially I had trouble seeing the significance of the story Robin and Alice like to tell about the salmon loaf Mercy made “for the very first meal of their marriage.” As Alice tells it, it was “salmon loaf, made from canned salmon….And with bottled mayonnaise, no doubt.” Lily responds exactly as I would: “well. No doubt,” Lily said, uneasily. (Was bottled mayonnaise not a good thing?) As Robin remembers it, the salmon loaf was a good meal, worthy of reproducing for their fiftieth anniversary celebration. We never get Mercy’s point of view on it, which actually tells us everything we need to know about it—that the story is remembered mostly because of other people’s expectations.

As far as everyone who is invited to the anniversary celebration is concerned, it’s a good thing Robin made the party a surprise for Mercy, even though she complains that she didn’t get to look forward to it, because no one is sure she would have come to celebrate their marriage if she’d known about it ahead of time. Everyone at the party has expectations, and we see how hard it is for anyone to do anything outside the usual parameters they operate within. Alice’s husband Kevin always brings champagne to family events, for instance, and Robin’s point of view on this at the anniversary celebration shows the generational differences:
“here came Kevin from the kitchen, holding up two champagne bottles. ‘Toasts all around!’ he said, and he send Eddie and Emily to the dining room for glasses. Then he made a big production over the popping of the first cork, and looked resigned the way he always did once the glasses arrived, because they were the dish-shaped kind handed down from Mercy’s grandmother. Kevin had mentioned several times that flutes were what people used nowadays.”

There’s some wisdom about how personalities are reproduced in different generations in families that people who are grandparents will enjoy more than I can (this is another part where I can only gaze longingly from the sidelines). While watching home movies, Robin thinks about his granddaughter Kendall, who everyone in the family calls Candle: “Wasn’t it surprising how the sight of Lily brought little Candle to Robin’s mind! And yet Candle was Alice’s daughter, not Lily’s. It almost seemed his two granddaughters had been issued to the wrong mothers—impish Candle to staid Alice, docile Serena to Lily, who had always been such a handful.”

Candle is the only one to get to know Mercy very well, as she also wants to be a painter. Mercy allows her to visit in the studio and actually talks to her, telling her “sometimes people live first one life and then another life….First a family life and then later a whole other kind of life. That’s what I’m doing.” Readers can see the appeal of a woman who worked as a housewife in the 1950’s getting to be more selfish in her second life, although my lack of sympathy for how absolutely selfish Mercy feels she has to be may stem at least partly from never having to live through those years myself.

Readers will recognize themselves in some of the many permutations of family life in this novel, sooner or later. Over and over, we hear about something happening, like a third marriage for Lily that even her daughter Serena wasn’t told about ahead of time, and when we hear Alice’s response, which is to ask “what does this family actually have to do with each other anymore?” we know that each of them is reacting to family patterns, whether they’re aware of it or not.

There’s a scene, late in the novel, when David is thinking about the photos in the family albums, and readers know why he has those albums and we know a few of the stories behind the pictures that are mentioned, even though we see that younger members of the family don’t know the associated stories. We can see each character’s part in the pattern, as if a member of the older generation has been able to stay alive and tell us the whole story.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2022 4:37 pm

    The last Tyler novel I read was a family saga – A Spool of Blue Thread. I enjoyed the characterisations but by the end I wasn’t sure what point she was making. Is this one similar in that sense do you think?

    • April 2, 2022 5:47 am

      I think her point in Spool was that families grow, but to understand them, we need to look to the past. Here I think her point is that, for better or worse, families are bound together. Sort of. I think. Maybe. I don’t know… I loved it!

      • April 2, 2022 12:02 pm

        I’ll give it a go Davida. I’m enjoying Redhead by the side of the road so far

        • April 3, 2022 7:51 am

          I don’t like it when fiction has too much of a “point” because it gets didactic but Davida’s not wrong about what I would prefer to call the theme of this novel.

  2. Gwen Bailey permalink
    April 1, 2022 8:27 pm

    When our children were little, we were a military family. We moved thirteen times in eleven years. While I was raised with a large energetic cacophony of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and even a couple of great grandmothers, our kids were raised with/by us. At bed time, the girls and I would have “girl talk”—daddies were not invited—a story telling time where I told stories of my family, from life in the old country through death in a foreign land. It was during one of these quiet times that the girls started to make connections in their own lives; they became their own storytellers. I think there is something essential in us that wants to be part of a narrative, much of which we will never know.
    I’ve become the holder of the pictures and memorable ephemera for my extended family, mainly because I had a class in grad school that taught me preservation of paper and paper products, including the letters sent between my grandparents, his coming home from “somewhere in Belgium” and then from “Stalag 11.” I was, as far as I know, the only person he told about his time in a Nazi camp. But now, my daughters know, and our older girl has started telling her babies those same stories. The narrative is richer for them knowing, collecting and connecting the then and now of storytelling. So much is already lost; I have photographs from my mother’s side of the family with writing on the back, explaining who the people are, where they are, what they were doing. The writing, however, is in Polish and I cannot read it. Perhaps one of the grands will learn how, and another strand of the story will be woven back into a new story.

    • April 3, 2022 7:57 am

      That’s lovely, and it’s great that your kids felt connected to family even though they couldn’t meet some of them in person.
      My mother said it was important to write on the back of the photos we have, and she helped us identify some people. Then when my mother-in-law was dying and we cleaned out her apartment (she was in a nursing home), I found some photos with no writing, and we didn’t get to ask her who some of the people were. Now it’s lost. We did find a photo of her riding a bear, from some long-defunct zoo!
      We read fiction to our kids, and they started to make connections (Ron’s question when our oldest was about three was “do you think Colonel Hathi knows Dumbo?”).

      • Gwen Bailey permalink
        April 6, 2022 8:28 pm

        That seems to be a really Ron thing to ask! What did they decide?

        • April 6, 2022 8:58 pm

          Yes. Characters from different stories can know each other. The real mind-bender for our kids was his observation that Kaa sounds just like Winnie-the-Pooh…

  3. April 4, 2022 7:32 am

    That’s a really good review. Even though I don’t have much family at all (and so felt like Serena) and have a fairly free and easy middle age, I did envy Mercy her special own space. However, I was really upset at the cat bit (at least she took him to a shelter), especially as Tyler had drawn him so well. The repeating patterns and family stories carried it along, didn’t they. I felt like it was quite an elegaic book, coming so up to date, and cried at the end for little reason – did you feel it was a bit “last book”-y as well? Here’s my review

    • April 4, 2022 7:50 am

      It does have an elegaic tone, but so did A Spool of Blue Thread. Coming up to date with the pandemic and the grandson living with them did make it feel like it might be a last book.

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