Photos: French Braid (kameshkova/GettyImages); 50's Chevy (Fotosearch/Getty Images); French Braid
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Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. author Anne Tyler's 24th novel examines the slights and miscommunications that fracture a Baltimore family over three generations / BY Dene Moore / March 25th, 2022
Anne Tyler says writing her latest novel, French Braid, helped to keep her sane during the pandemic. “I was so isolated, of course, but there was a whole crowd of people that I was living with virtually on the page, and so that helped a lot,” the 80-year-old American author says in an interview from her home in Baltimore.
She saw her two daughters and their families several times, but they did miss a Christmas together and a regular family beach vacation. Her husband, child psychiatrist Dr. Taghi Modarressi, died in 1997.
Tyler didn’t plan on writing about COVID-19, but as the pandemic dragged on and on, it made a brief, poignant appearance in French Braid, a multigenerational family tale. “I thought, you know, ‘I don’t think I can avoid it. I don’t know when this is going to end, I don’t know how far to set it in the future not to have it. I think I’ll just use it.’” Still, like most Tyler novels, it is never gloomy.
“I guess I was trying to have a happy imaginary life for myself, as I always do in my books, so therefore I couldn’t have made it dark,” she says.
French Braid is the 24th novel from Tyler, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 for Breathing Lessons and the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist in 1985, among a host of nominations for critically acclaimed work such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, A Spool of Blue Thread and Redhead By the Side of the Road. The name of the novel comes from the three-stranded hairstyle, which is used as a metaphor for family by one of the characters in the novel. “That’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never free; the ripples are crimped in forever,” Tyler writes in the book.
The novel begins with a modern-day chance encounter in a train station between two descendants of the middle-class Garrett family from Baltimore: Serena, who is travelling with her boyfriend James, and her aunt’s son, Nicholas. The two cousins have become so distant that Serena is not even sure if the other is, indeed, her cousin. When James asks Serena if she has a multitude of cousins, she admits just five, while he has 11. Tyler writes:
“Still, I’d know any one of them if I happened to see them in the train station.”
“Yes, but we are just all so spread out,” she said. “Uncle David up here in Philly, Aunt Alice out in Baltimore County…”
“Ooh, way far away in the county!” James said, and he gave her a dig in the ribs.
“I mean, we tend to see each other only at weddings and funerals and such,” she said. She paused, considering. “And not even all of those. But I don’t know why exactly.”
Then the novel goes back to the early days of the marriage of Serena’s grandparents, Robin and Mercy, and the childhoods and subsequent lives of their children Alice, Lily and David. The story, told through multiple points of view, spans six decades, detailing the small slights and misunderstandings that can fracture a family.
Tyler doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike to write a book, though this one did grow from an incident in her own life, when she learned an aunt and uncle had died and she hadn’t known. “When I started writing the book, I was thinking, ‘What does make a family drift apart?’” she says in the interview. “Not the catastrophic thing, somebody divorced somebody, but what makes it happen sometimes that families don’t stay latched together?”
The novelist is not trying to impart any particular wisdom in the book, although she is happy when readers say they decided to get in touch with family members once they’ve finished it.
“My writing teacher in college said the reader is always right, meaning the reader could totally misinterpret my book or take something completely other than what I meant away from it and I don’t get a say. I’ve put it out in the world and it’s in their hands now.”
Tyler lived in Montreal for the first four years of her marriage in the early ’60s as her husband completed his psychiatry studies at McGill University, and she professes a warm spot in her heart for Canada.
“It was a very exciting time because everybody was sort of streaming in from all over the world to prepare for Expo 67. That started several years before ’67,” she says. “I’m sure everybody says this. The Canadian people are just so nice.”
She does not have another book in the works. She did write a collection of short stories after French Braid was finished, though she doesn’t plan to publish them.
“I’m not really a very good short story writer,” she says. “I just did it so that I could get up in the morning and say, ‘Well, I can sit down at a desk for a while.’”
Now that’s she 80, Tyler does think of retiring. “I’ve said, for years, the world doesn’t need another Anne Tyler book. It really, truly doesn’t. That’s not modesty speaking, it’s just a fact.”
When she does finish writing a book, she finds it difficult to have to open up to the world and answer questions about it.
“Sometimes I don’t really know the answers and I just think, ‘Well, I could quit,’” she says. “The only problem is I have no hobbies. I’m going to have to work on that.”