French Braid by Anne Tyler review – rifts and reunions in Robin’s nest | Anne Tyler

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This, blessedly, is now Anne Tyler’s fourth novel since she suggested that 2015’s A Spool of Blue Thread was going to be her last. We might fairly think that some of the things she has said in recent interviews aren’t exactly engraved in stone, not least because French Braid, a warm family saga set between 1959 and the late summer of 2020, appears to represent a U-turn on her intuition that “it’d be really wrongheaded of me to suddenly start talking about the coronavirus at this stage in one of my books”. Responding to a question about whether Covid might break her aversion to putting topical elements in her work, she said: “It would derail the small private story I’m trying to tell.”

After her previous novel, the terrific Redhead By the Side of the Road, generously centred on the blinkered perspective of a middle-aged IT guy, French Braid returns to type: a multigenerational ensemble piece that will have fans marking their Tyler bingo cards, from empty nesters taking later-life left turns and family rifts surrounding odd-one-out siblings.

Set, as usual, in Baltimore, it’s the story of the Garretts: husband and wife Robin and Mercy, children Alice, Lily and David. We meet them on a rare holiday to a Maryland lake, with the girls in their teens and their younger brother a curious seven-year-old happiest playing make-believe with his toys. But Robin, a plumber turned shopkeeper, has other ideas, and his heavy-handed attempt to break David’s reluctance to swim will set family tensions simmering down the decades.

As trauma plots go, it’s not exactly A Little Life, sure, but Tyler has a keen eye for the way small moments can have unpredictable effects in a family’s understanding of one another. The rift, all the more severe for being largely unvoiced, only worsens when David, ready to high-tail it to university in 1970, is forced into a character-building summer job with one of Robin’s plumber friends, rather than volunteer with a community theatre group; Robin wants to teach him that being a man means you can’t always choose.

Among the ironies of Tyler’s reputation as a writer of domestic fiction – that loaded term – is that she’s a shrewd observer of masculinity. In another recent interview she discussed her sense that “it must be very hard to be a man – hard to become a man, when you’re young and not very sure of yourself but you’re expected to be in charge now”. When Robin explains his eagerness to get David swimming by saying that his sister Alice learned when she was four, a line from Alice’s point of view tells us that she was actually eight: “But her father hadn’t worried about it. There were advantages to being a girl and having nothing much expected of you.”

The novel is cut into seven sections, each an individual third-person narrative unobtrusively tied to a particular family member’s point of view, from parents to grandchildren, generating intimacy by showing characters acting in ways we’ve been prepared for by how others see them. Each segment unfolds a decade apart, sometimes a little more, sometimes less, which contributes to the novel’s nicely relaxed sense that Tyler isn’t squeezing her characters into a design so much as just letting them be. And yet there’s nothing slack about it: witness the passing detail, casually dispensed, that Robin and Mercy married on 5 July 1940, a slyly suggestive date – the day after independence day – in a novel shaped by each character’s search for autonomy.

The best and funniest chapter involves Mercy’s plan, the day after David flies the nest, to move her things bit by bit, almost imperceptibly, into a studio she’s been renting to pursue her ambitions as a painter. Potential obstacles emerge instantly: first with news that Lily is pregnant by a man who isn’t her husband, and then with the expectation of Mercy’s elderly landlord that she can look after his cat while he attends a family emergency in another state.

As the story draws near the present, it’s no surprise that Tyler steers clear of the pandemic’s dystopian energies, which have proved catnip to other writers. I suspect she decided to write about it because she understood that for each of us the virus ultimately was (and is) a “small private story”. Tyler, against the trend, concentrates on Covid’s potential to occasion reunion and reconnection, as David, now a retired teacher, finds himself called on in lockdown to care for his small grandson. It spoils nothing to say that, in the bravura final paragraph, the use Tyler makes of a face mask is typical of her generous cast of mind, turning a symbol of disruption into one of great tenderness.

French Braid may not upend a fan’s ranking of Tyler’s novels, in the way Redhead By the Side of the Road was a late entry, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and at this point any Tyler book is a gift. Funny, poignant, generous, not shying away from death and disappointment but never doomy or overwrought, it suggests there’s always new light to be shed, whatever the situation, with just another turn of the prism.

French Braid by Anne Tyler is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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