Book Club


French Braid by Anne Tyler

This book is a subtle family portrait set in Baltimore from 1940s to the present. The multi generational family with Mercy and Robin as Grandparents has a third person narrative and is divided into portions set approximately a decade apart.

It describes the complex yet simple dynamics of family life, how characters change over time, their shifting relationships and how parents have a huge impact on their children.

The book opens with Serena (third generation ) finding that her boyfriend observes her family as dysfunctional. She stoutly defends them but of course this turns out to be true. It continues with a vivid description of a family holiday at the lake - they all do separate things. Mercy paints and ignores the family, Robin doesn’t interact with his children. Alice, the eldest child does all the cooking, looks after David age 7, who is a nervous quiet child and Lily is a typical teenager. David goes to college and loses touch with his family, convinced his father never liked him.

Mercy, having brought up her family, decides to focus her art and it develops into an obsession painting portraits of houses. In order to work continuously and without interruption she moves to a studio nearby and gradually leaves Robin completely. He, and indeed the rest of the family, never mention this. She seems to be a cold insular and rather selfish woman. Robin, possibly typical of fathers in the 50s, tries to change David from a boy interested in the arts and theatre to someone waiting to take over the family iron mongers business.

“ This is what families do to each other, hide a few inconvenient truths, allow a few self deceptions. Little kindnesses, little cruelties.”

The story highlights the different social customs in the US and UK and, although the book has strong characterisations, events as they unfold are low key. At the end of the book David is old, has found love and family, and the joy of grandchildren. After a long visit from his son and grandson he is chatting to his wife about the past and they recall the French braid that their daughter had as a child -“ Hair still in ripples, little leftover squiggles, - after taking the French braid out.

“That’s how families work, you think you’re free of them, but you are never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

Opinions about the book were equally divided. Sad in parts, sometimes nostalgic but also uplifting and humorous.

At our next meeting on April 8th we will review “The Shrines of Gaiety” by Kate Atkinson.
Liz Watkins & Jane Rose