French Braid, by Anne Tyler

The last Anne Tyler novel I read, Redhead by the Side of the Road, dealt with one of her classic storylines: a lonely man who avoids meaningful connection with others. French Braid picks up another common Tyler thread: a large, multigenerational family (in Baltimore, of course), and the relationships between them, the loneliness that can exist within the seemingly tightly-braided network of an extended family.

The novel begins with a simple and telling scene in a train station in 2010: college student Serena, heading home from a trip with her boyfriend, sees her first cousin Nicholas from a distance but doesn’t speak to him, because she’s not sure a) if it’s him, and b) if he would know her. Her boyfriend is amazed that a family can be so distant that first cousins wouldn’t recognize each other in a train station (they live in different US states, but not particularly far apart, so it’s not as if they’ve grown up separated by continents).

Then, we get the backstory of this family, beginning with Serena’s and Nicholas’s grandparents, Mercy and her husband Robin, taking their first and last family vacation with their three children in the summer of 1959. Moving forward in chapters spaced roughly ten years or so apart, we get brief glimpses into the lives of the Garrett family, shifting point of view from one character to another, exploring not just the connections that tie families together but also the spaces that push them apart.

There’s no big secret to be revealed here, no shocking moment when we discover the horrible event that drove the Garretts apart. Rather, there’s a series of little secrets, little lies, little misunderstandings — as well as little moments of warmth, love, and connection — unfolding over the decades. It’s a story both big and small, told with the loving attention to detail that we always get from an Anne Tyler novel, with warmth, humour, and an overarching sense (for me at least) of melancholy: why can’t all these good people be a little better at showing how much they care for each other?

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