Since 1964, Anne Tyler has published 25 novels, a number of short stories, and many book reviews. Tyler, the oldest of four children, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, into a devout Quaker family; in 1948 they joined a Quaker commune in the mountains of North Carolina. Livingi there with her family between the ages of 7 and 11, Tyler did not attend public school but was “home schooled” at the commune. As a young child, she entertained herself with stories she made up.
After four years, the Tyler family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Tyler and her siblings attended public school for the first time. She has said that her unusual early years helped her to view “the normal world with a certain amount of distance and surprise.” When she entered public school, she found herself academically ahead of her peers. She began to visit Raleigh libraries where she found the works of Eudora Welty and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. Welty remains one of her favorite writers; she says, “Reading Eudora Welty when I was growing up showed me that very small things are often really larger than the large things.”
After graduating from Needham B. Broughton High School, Tyler planned to attend Swarthmore College, founded by Quakers in 1860, but Duke offered her a full scholarship. At Duke, Tyler enrolled in Reynolds Price’s first creative writing. Price, who later called Tyler “one of the best novelists alive in the world,” described herat Duke” as mture at 16 and already a fine writer.” In 1961 at only 19,Tyler graduated from Duke; she entered graduate school at Columbia in New York City to study Slavic literature, but she stayed there only a year and never completed the MA degree. On her return to Raleigh, she worked as a Russian bibliographer at the Duke University library. She soon met Taghi Modarressi, a resident in child psychiatry at Duke.They married in 1963, had two daughters, and remained together until his death from lymphoma in 1997.The family settled permanently in Baltimore, Maryland, where Anne Tyler set many of her novels; she continues to live in the Roland Park area of the city..
. Because of her connection with North Carolina, Tyler has sometimes been called a Southern writer, but “American realist” seems more accurate. None of her novels is set in the lower South but deal with middle-class families who could have lived anywhere in the United States.
Tyler wrote her first novels during her years working in the library at Duke, publishing If Morning Ever Comes and The Tin Can Tree in 1964 and 1965. After the birth of her two daughters, Tyler took a five-year break from writing but began to write novels again in 1970, publishing three more by 1974. Her work began to be noticed: she earned glowing reviews from both Gail Godwin and John Updike.
Her breakthrough novel was Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) which she considers to be her best work. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her next novel The Accidental Tourist won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and became a Hollywood movie in 1988, featuring William Hurt and Geena Davis. Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Her many novels since then have been Book of the Month Club Main Selections and New York Times Bestsellers.
As I said before, Tyler has set most of her novels in Baltimore, most deal with middle-class characters and family issues. One exception is Digging to America (2006), a tribute to her late husband, who, like the main character of the novel, was an immigrant from Iran. Tyler’s power as a novelist lies in her understanding of family dynamics, her knowledge of “difference,” her emphasis on realistic detail, and her ability to create moving characters, especially women who struggle with conflict between family and art.
French Braid (2022) contains all of these elements. Covering the years between 1959 and 2020, Tyler introduces the Garrett Family: Mercy Wellington, Robin Garrett and their children, Alice, Lily, and David. From the beginning, Tyler reveals disjunctions in the family; the parents seem incompatible; Alice is the good girl, Lily, the “wild child,” and David the alienated son. Near the beginning of the novel, Tyler describes the only family vacation the Garretts ever took, a week at Deep Creek Lake that shows how mismatched Mercy and Robin are, how unmotherly Mercy is, and how the children essentially have to find their own way.
As time passes, Mercy, quite literally, leaves Robin to pursue her dream of becoming an artist; David goes off to college, permanently separating himself from the family. He becomes a high school English teacher and marries a considerably older woman with a young daughter. Lily marries a motorcycle “dude,” but becomes pregnant with her boss’s child. Only Alice has a conventional marriage.
By the end of the novel all of the children have children, the parents have died, and Tyler focuses on David who has retired from teaching. Ultimately, he emerges as the one Garrett who fully accepts and understands family–he compares the intertwined qualities of family to the French braids his step-daughter Emily once wore:
“. . .when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterward. . .. Well, that’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” French Braids is not an exciting novel, yet Tyler presents clear truths about family.