If you love Anne Tyler as I do, you will love French Braid, which is pure Anne Tyler and a breath of fresh air.
The novel starts in March of 2010 with Serena Drew and her boyfriend, James, in the Philadelphia train station. Serena sees someone she thinks might be her cousin and James intercedes and introduces himself to the man, Nicholas, who is in fact Serena’s first cousin. James thinks it odd that Serena is so unfamiliar with her cousin, and maintains a distant relationship with her family. James’ reaction causes Serena to think back over her family’s history. The rest of the novel is the story of that history.
Serena’s mother, Lily, is the middle child of Mercy and Robin Garrett, of Baltimore. Lily’s older sister, Alice, was always the adult of the family and her younger brother, David, always maintained a distance. Lily was somewhat wild in her younger years and experienced a number of questionable romantic relationships. Serena is the result of an affair with a married man who ultimately divorces his wife and marries Lily.
Mercy is an artist and rents a studio where she slowly moves all her possessions and ultimately, to Robin’s chagrin, makes her permanent residence. She returns to the family house periodically to do laundry and to ensure that Robin is taken care of.
Alice marries and has two children and appears to lead a traditional life. David goes off to college and the family sees very little of him. After graduation, David teaches English and drama at a high school outside Philadelphia. He never travels home. Then, in 1982, he calls the family and says he would like to visit for Easter. He travels to Baltimore and brings with him his older girlfriend, Greta, and her daughter, Emily. Ultimately Greta and David marry, although there is no family wedding. None of the Garrett children seem to be particularly close.
The family again comes together in 1990 to celebrate Robin and Mercy’s 50th anniversary (yes, even though they live apart they stay married). Time goes by and grandchildren are born and people die. Yet despite the family dysfunction and seeming lack of closeness, they come together periodically in a variety of different ways, like French braids, where the crimps in the hair show even after the braids are undone. “…that’s how families work…You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”
And that is the story of French Braid. No matter how independent you believe yourself to be, and no matter how dysfunctional you believe your family to be, the impact of your family is always with you. This is a delightful, short, completely enjoyable novel. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.