Published March 2022 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley
Publisher's Summary:The Garretts take their first and last family vacation in the summer of 1959. They hardly ever leave home, but in some ways they have never been farther apart. Mercy has trouble resisting the siren call of her aspirations to be a painter, which means less time keeping house for her husband, Robin. Their teenage daughters, steady Alice and boy-crazy Lily, could not have less in common. Their youngest, David, is already intent on escaping his family's orbit, for reasons none of them understand. Yet, as these lives advance across decades, the Garretts' influences on one another ripple ineffably but unmistakably through each generation.
Full of heartbreak and hilarity, French Braid is classic Anne Tyler: a stirring, uncannily insightful novel of tremendous warmth and humor that illuminates the kindnesses and cruelties of our daily lives, the impossibility of breaking free from those who love us, and how close—yet how unknowable—every family is to itself.
I've been a fan of Tyler's since I picked up The Accidental Tourist, some time back in the 1980's. She writes terrifically believable quirky characters and always explores relationships in ways no one else does. She is particularly good at exploring family dynamics and is the queen of casual asides and writing that sounds exactly the way people actually speak. French Braid has all of that and yet, I'm sorry to say, this one just didn't work for me.
Perhaps because right off the bat I became exasperated with Mercy who might rightly be considered a terrible mother. She seems not in the least concerned that her 15-year-old daughter spends their entire vacation with a 21-year-old man nor with what her 7-year-old son is doing, trusting that others will watch over him. She relies on her other daughter to actually get the family fed, to put meals on the table. Still, she seemed very hurt when David went off to college and never really kept in touch much after that.
She is a prime example of "some people shouldn't be mothers." No sooner have the children flown the coop than she begins the slow process of moving out of the family home. Certainly Mercy would have felt, in the 1950's, that she must wed and have children, even though she was clearly a woman who never should have done either. Today she might have still felt that pressure but it would be so much more acceptable for her to live her life the way she wanted.
The relationships between the children worked the best for me. Even though I am blessed to have three children who get along incredibly well, despite their differences, I know that is rare. The two sisters are so different, and were treated so differently growing up; it's understandable that they would bicker and have to tread carefully around each other. But also believable that when something happens in the family, they reach out to each other. A baby brother, who one sister has largely ignored and the other felt the weight of raising, continues to be an enigma to the family with whom he's never fit in.
The publisher's summary says that this book is full of heartbreak and hilarity. The only heartbreak I felt was for Robin, who spent the rest of his life after Mercy left, pretending to his children that she hadn't; he was left in limbo. As to hilarity, I didn't find it here which was a disappointment because I used to make my husband listen to me read him funny bits of Tyler's books. I'm not sure what I wanted from this book; I just know that I didn't get it.
Now, as always, this is just my opinion. And it seems that others enjoyed this much more. Check out Ron Charles', of the Washington Post, review. Or Jennifer Haigh's review in the New York Times. They both seem to have found the Anne Tyler that I always loved in this book. I wish I had.