BPS Bookclub April 2023

Review of French Braid by Anne Tyler

Firstly, let’s deal with your expectations. Readers new to Anne Tyler should have perhaps received a trigger warning, i.e. There Are No Triggers In This Book. Did we expect David to drown on the beach? Did we need an acrimonious divorce? Did we want a pivotal moment?

No, wait – this is Anne Tyler. It’s just an ‘ordinary family’. Therein lies both the frustration and the joy for readers – the small moments that make up the drama of a family, and the depth of characterisation that allow us to dissect the characters fully, because they are so realistically complex.

The group’s reaction to this book was mostly in favour, 57% gave it 4 or more points out of 5. The middle vote, aka ‘ it had some merit’ was 22% and those against (and in this case a strong against!) reached 21%.  So let’s deal with them next, what were the gripes? 

A strange combination, structurally speaking, of unnecessary detail in some  passages, and then skimming over years in the next chapter, which led to confusing changes of pace.  A lack of emotional connection, with a wide cast of characters that were at times quite random and not particularly likeable.  JUST BORING! (See opening paragraph?!)

“As far as I’m concerned, character is everything. I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too”

Anne Tyler’s own words – it’s all about character. And that is what many of us enjoyed. A book steeped in the reality of ‘domestic fiction’, about families that perhaps have carried grievances which other family members don’t even realise, about how hard it is to be ‘yourself’ whilst fulfilling a particular role in the family, about ultimately being able to find a life outside of the family, either alone or with another partner, that makes you feel more of a person, or a truer version of yourself.

Those who rated it highest had the greatest respect for Tyler’s insight into character – how the children are actually ‘fully formed’ from the outset on the family holiday, and their attitudes then explain how they will deal with the rest of their lives. How Mercy does gain some redemption and wisdom as she nears the end of her life – she was to an extent the victim of her time, when wife and mother trumped all other ambition.  A deceptively simple writing style yet getting to the core of what makes each character tick.

And there were moments of levity, almost comic in their honesty. The cat (and Mercy’s treatment of said cat) came in for a lot of debate!  The two children called Robin. The way that Mercy slid gradually out of Robin’s domestic environment by taking one or two items at a time to her studio…

One of my favourite idioms is ‘damned by faint praise’ and I think this might have won the ‘DBFP’ award for this season’s bookclub. Some quotes from my notes – “pleasantly pedestrian”, “grand soft read”, “warm cup of tea” -  in our opinion AT is not winning book awards with this one. Or perhaps we are just becoming hardened literary critics given the tough stuff we have made it through recently!

For those of you who would like to explore more of Anne Tyler, some of the (24) other novels she has written are worth a look – most recommended were Breathing Lessons, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Digging to America. She deals with different subject matter, and if the expectations are tempered from the outset, you might just find that there is “always new light to be shed, with another turn of the prism” (Goodreads reviewer, not me)