Anne Tyler has had a long and notable career as a novelist, and thanks to the library book club I've finally gotten around to reading her. It turns out that French Braid is a classic book club read, offering plenty to talk about, both due to her prose style and the treatment of the subject matter. The novel is, typical for Tyler, a family saga, but not your usual kind, as nothing majorly significant occurs, except a family, the Garretts, drifting apart due to ineffectual parenting and poor communication skills. Certain readers would find Tyler's style to be bland and too focussed on every-day details that are typical of life. For these reasons 'domestic fiction' is often critiqued quite savagely (like, for example, most Hilary Mantel novels before the Wolf Hall trilogy), however Tyler's approach is subtle and clever, with much more going on under the surface than you would think. The Garrett family seems very typical, but, as one example, Tyler uses the family to explore the inherent problems of being a man in an ever changing societal and cultural landscape. Robin Garret, the father, flounders along, even though he believes he's doing a fine job of being a father and a husband. His wife, Mercy Garrett, is a closet feminist, playing the role of wife and mother in a perfunctory manner, so much so that even her escape from the pressures of role-playing is a measured affair. Tyler also has an ability to defy narrative expectations. During a family vacation problems occur that in other novels would be dramatic and decisive plot devices, which would then feature throughout the rest of the narrative, but here the expected doesn't happen, which is pleasantly surprising.
There's no doubt that Tyler is a quality writer, one to admire, however her work is not for everyone. I enjoyed analysing her writing, but did not particularly enjoy reading the novel. It is slow and overly descriptive, despite its other qualities already mentioned. Characters are certainly sympathetic, but not particularly memorable, for me in any case. In an interview I read with Tyler she notes (to paraphrase) that readers go to Philip Roth for vinegar and piss, but read her books for cookies and tea; I have a strong tendency to agree with her observation. There's great merit in what Tyler does, but it just doesn't interest the likes of a reader such as myself, who enjoys some extremes in novels. Despite these observations I'm pleased to have read French Braid, it's a typical example of the book club making me read a book I never would have chosen myself. There's value in having your hand forced by a book club, it makes you into a far more well rounded reader and hones your critical abilities, that could become duller as a result of constantly reading books you know you'll enjoy. Also Tyler wrote The Accidental Tourist (1985), which was made into a great movie, to which I took a particular woman to see on a first date, which went well and helped to create some great relationship memories, some of which could easily become narrative fodder for one of Tyler's novels, just not the man floundering along bit....
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