Anne Tyler is the world’s best living novelist. Now in her early eighties, she seldom gives interviews or attends literary events, so her recent appearance on Desert Island Discs was a boon. There was an ugly moment a decade ago when Tyler hinted at retirement, but mercifully she has continued to publish. Indeed, one of her very best novels, A Spool of Blue Thread, appeared in 2015 and its successors Clock Dance and Redhead by the Side of the Road are also delightful. She’s never written a bad book.
That established, it is a curious feature that none of Tyler’s stories open well. Almost all of her books introduce a host of characters without preamble. This is oddly unsettling, like going to a party where you don’t know anyone. There’s that sense of hovering while you wait for a gap in the conversation.
French Braid starts in just this way. It begins at a railway station in 2010 with a girl named Serena and a boy named James. On the concourse they bump into a cousin of hers called Nicholas. James has just taken Serena to meet his family, which leads her to thoughts about her own people. The sight of the long-lost cousin occasions reflections about her wider family, too. Many names flash into view, and their relations: brother, sister, aunt, uncle, child. But for the reader there’s a sense of slippage. Which of these faceless names are going to matter, here? Will we be able to remember who is who?
As it transpires, Serena is barely mentioned for the rest of the tale. James disappears – as first boyfriends are wont to do – and Nicholas only reappears in the final chapter. Whereas in other books by her, these muddling beginnings make sense as the story progresses, here there is the puzzling sense of having turned into a cul-de-sac. These handful of pages may be the only example, in any of her work, of Anne Tyler putting a foot wrong.
It hardly matters, of course. For in French Braid Tyler demonstrates once again why she is so beloved. This is someone with an almost uncanny sympathy for and understanding of how people interact. You don’t turn to her for picaresque adventures, exotic locations or derring-do. What she offers is something much more important: a glimpse into the very workings of the human heart.
French Braid has versions of people who often appear in Tyler’s landscape. There is a long-married older woman who questions her role as a wife and mother; a bossy daughter and an impulsive one; an uncommunicative son. She’s brilliant at depicting children, their foibles and fears. When she describes a little boy standing stock still because he’s frightened of a bee, you can picture him so vividly it’s as if you’ve been stung yourself. Her characters are resolutely ordinary – the owner of a plumbing supply business, an estate agent, a drama teacher – but the emotions which roil beneath the calm surface of their lives are anything but.
Much of the story centres around the reluctant matriarch, Mercy Garrett. In a slyly amusing extension of the present obsession with decluttering, Tyler has Mercy move out of the marital home into a tiny studio above a garage, 20 minutes away. She takes only a handful of things, wanting to live simply and concentrate on her (we take it, not very good) painting. Her three adult children all know she’s gone, but they never mention it to their Dad, Robin; he knows she’s gone, but thinks the kids haven’t noticed. As in life, some lies and omissions have good intentions.
There are two brilliant set-pieces in French Braid. The first is the family get-together at which the reticent son brings his girlfriend home to meet his folks. Anyone who has ever been a part of such a gathering will thrill at how well the scene is described, each tiny imagined slight, each resentful sniff, each bright announcement, afterwards, that the day went well.
The second is the excruciating golden wedding anniversary party which Robin plans for Mercy. She has by now been living apart from him for many years, but he is determined to mark the occasion. The children and grandchildren turn up, feeling nervous. It’s as nail-biting as anything in Alfred Hitchcock, because Tyler has a way of making you love the people and long for things to work out between them. The party concludes in a most surprising way. Even in her 24th novel, Tyler can still astound and delight us.
These family occasions and their unexpected tenderness suddenly reminded me of the superb James Joyce story, The Dead. An academic could do worse than write a thesis on the parallels. The rest of us can simply sit back with French Braid, confident of the joy in store.
Bad Relations by Cressida Connolly is out in May and is published by Viking
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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