French Braid by Anne Tyler - review by Noonie Minogue

Noonie Minogue

Seeking Mercy

French Braid


Chatto & Windus 256pp £16.99

A young woman called Serena spots a man in Philadelphia’s main station and says, ‘It might be my cousin Nicholas.’ Her boyfriend is incredulous: What? Doesn’t she know her own cousin by sight? What kind of family is this? His is large and warm. Her folks are thin on the ground and weirdly disconnected. She’s suddenly troubled by this and they quarrel on the train home.

The Garrett family’s failure to ‘gel’ is what is explored in Anne Tyler’s new novel, which zips back first of all to a summer holiday by a lake in 1959. We meet Serena’s ill-matched grandparents Robin and Mercy, their teenage daughters, Alice and Lily, and a younger son named David. Mercy Garrett, upbeat and blithe, disappears into the forest with her acrylic paints, leaving Alice, the elder daughter, to worry about sexy, sulky Lily, who’s going too far with a louche college boy. Robin, a goofy seller of plumbing supplies, stands waist-deep in the lake discussing sewage with another paterfamilias. On tiptoe with his new tall friend, he hectors his son to man up and be less afraid of the lake. David wades bravely in, panics and has to be fished out. Was this the moment when things went wrong?

Tyler’s achievement in this witty and moving novel is to show that no one explanation will ever do. Even before David’s fright in the water, Alice observes that ‘a passerby would never guess the Garretts even knew each other. They looked so scattered, and so lonesome.’ David’s remoteness

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