Anne Tyler's French Braid

Who're the Garretts? Over the course of six decades, from 1959 until 2020, Tyler opens the curtains, roughly once a decade, for the readers to peek into the lives of Garretts, a white middle-class family in Baltimore. These cross-sections - a family vacation, an anniversary party, a death, a pandemic - are the punctuations during which we get to know the family. Parents become grandparents, a mother withdraws inwards, a wife cheats and a child learns how to draw. The family comes together, falls apart, utter words that sting and stay supportive.

Mercy Garrett, mother of three, was never matronly. When they go on their first vacation, 18 years after their marriage, she's happy to exercise her painting skills, mostly unaware of the whereabouts of her kids. We see Alice, the 17 year old daughter, step in and creatively cobble together lunches and dinners with what they have in the pantry. Lily, the 15 year old, can't wait to take flight with a boyfriend, any boyfriend. David, the 8 year old, is reserved and insightful. Robin, the father, a man of limited emotional range, loves his family but doesn't really know how to express it, drifts aimlessly. What we don't see in this week-long vacation is all of them sharing a family meal. The family members care for each other, but there's more self-concern than love.

After David leaves home for college and they become empty nesters, the simple-minded Robin wonders if they'll have the freedom to have sex on the living room floor. He failed to see that his wife of 27 years only stayed together because that's what the society expected of her. She moves out, but with such gentleness that it doesn't break Robin's heart. She wanted to be a painter when she was young. And now that the kids are out, she starts afresh. It takes more than a decade and she achieves modest success. We see a friend of hers from her art school who has made it big in New York. But she holds no grudges about how her cookie had crumbled. She says "everybody runs their own race".

Meanwhile David, Mercy's son, has a lot less respect for societal conventions. He feels he'd been shackled by his family and once out of home for college his ties back home suffer a severe setback. Though he lives only a couple of hours away, he comes home only a handful of times, like for his parents' 50th anniversary. He feels like there's no love lost between him and his siblings or parents. But the man's capacity for love is concentrated and pours out only to his nuclear family. His love for his wife, step-daughter and son has left him with nothing for the rest of the society. When the pandemic hits, he's quite happy to not have his friends come over.

There are slices of lives of sons-in-law and grandkids we get to know along with the daughters Alice and Lily. Having seen these folks grow and change over decades, we feel like we know them. Lily, after an adventurous start to her life, finds herself in a vulnerable position: married and pregnant with another man's child. She decides to tamp down her hormones and settle down. But we see the same Lily in top gear in her 60s, after she has seen her kids off. Just like her mother. Do we really know the Garretts? Do we really know ourselves?

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