Close-up artist Anne Tyler zooms out for novel of family breakdowns

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The emotional crescendo of the novel arrives at Robin and Mercy’s 50th birthday party. (Twenty years after he left, they still haven’t told the kids.) Watching movies at home with his disconnected and taciturn brood, Robin thinks to himself, “If there had been some kind of limit, to at the time, at the duration of a last scene? Each was so brief. … Poof! And then goodbye. Goodbye to all that. … He had flown way too fast, he thought as the screen faded. And he wasn’t just talking about the movie.

“French Braid” is a novel about what we remember, what remains to us when all the choices have been made, the children brought up, the dreams realized or abandoned. It is a moving meditation on the passage of time.

The novel ends on a poignant note, as David, now retired, unexpectedly finds himself immersed in family intimacy when his son moves in with him during the pandemic. He is surprised to recognize the Garrett family traits in his 5-year-old grandson. “David’s father had shrugged his shoulders like that whenever he was focused on a task – a man Benny had never laid eyes on.” This leads her to recall the French braids her daughter wore as a child: “When she undid them, her hair would still be in waves.”

David told his wife, “That’s also how families work. You think you’re free, but you never are really free; the ripples are set forever.

The moment is vintage Tyler: the epiphany that will surprise no one, a clever restatement of conventional wisdom that only affirms what we already believe. This is why some (mostly male) critics over the years have called her work sentimental – the defining characteristic of the genre known as “women’s fiction”. It’s an editorial understatement that carries more than a whiff of misogyny, implying that fiction written by and about women is by definition something less than literature – comforting rather than cerebral, reassuring rather than stimulating. Certainly, during her long career, Tyler has sometimes fallen into these traps. (See “A Patchwork Planet.”) But “French Braid” is the opposite of reassuring. The novel is imbued with an old-fashioned feminism of a currently outdated genre. It squarely examines the consequences of stifled female ambition – for the woman herself and for those in her orbit.

For all its charm, “French Braid” is a quietly subversive novel, tackling fundamental assumptions about femininity, motherhood, and female aging. Contrary to the thousand-pound self-help message, Mercy’s efforts to start a career in her midlife are in vain. She advertises her services in neighborhood grocery stores, on laundromat bulletin boards: “Let a professional artist paint the picture of your home.” After decades as a housewife, domestic life is her only subject.

In mourning the lost possibilities of Mercy’s life, Tyler is aiming for a sentimental trope deeply rooted in American culture. Despite the feminist movement, popular culture (not to mention “women’s fiction”) still clings to the notion of motherhood as the ultimate emotional fulfillment, the great and supreme satisfaction of a woman’s life. For Mercy Garrett, that’s just not the case.

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