For the next little bit, then, Mercy continued sleeping at home. She got up in the mornings and made Robin’s breakfast; she tidied and bustled around until he went to work. (Oh, leave! Just leave! she told him in her mind. How long can it take to just go?) Then, the instant he was out of the house, she was off to her studio. She didn’t have much to carry anymore. All the essentials were there now, and even those seemed excessive, because she’d envisioned her future life as taking place in an empty room.
Reading a new Anne Tyler novel always feels familiar, like coming home again—which is also, aptly enough, often the theme of her novels. I have heard the criticism that Tyler always writes the same novel. I don’t think that’s exactly fair, or at least it’s no more true of her than of many other writers who have found their voice, or their niche — “his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée,” as Henry James puts it. (I was irked by Toby Litt’s snide comment in A Writer’s Diary that Sarah Waters always writes the same book?!) But I also have to concede that there is some truth in that complaint, because the scale and the tone and even, to some extent, the characters in Tyler’s fiction are pretty similar.
For that reason I don’t actually have much to say about French Braid. I liked it a lot, because it’s the kind of thing I like. Like many of Tyler’s novels, it’s a small-scale family saga, here the interwoven stories of three generations. There are no extremes in it (or in any of Tyler’s novels)—no real highs, no real lows. It’s just more or less ordinary people, with their quirks and aspirations and successes and failures and dislikes and loyalties, getting through their lives as best they can. As I read, they all felt very real and immediate to me, but I already can’t recall their stories with much specificity.
The thing that I expect will stick with me about French Braid is its variation on Tyler’s frequent theme of people thinking they want a change but then discovering that what they already have is actually what they want. This pattern is exemplified in my longstanding favorite, Ladder of Years, in which Delia walks away from her family and starts a whole new life for herself. Here’s what I wrote once about that escape fantasy and its results:
Much as I vicariously enjoy Delia’s escape and the cool, unsentimental way she sets about reinventing herself, it’s her return that makes the novel calming, something I turn to when I’m feeling fretful in my own life. We don’t really want to abandon the people we love, no matter how difficult or annoying or distracting they can be; without the elements we sometimes chafe against as complications or impositions, our lives would be thin and bare and joyless, like Delia’s spartan rented room. Delia tries to walk away, not just from her life, but from life itself. The novel unassumingly, with Tyler’s characteristic dry whimsy, returns her, and us, to where we belong.
It’s calming, but it’s also, in a way, deflating: you could read it as saying there’s no point trying to start over, or do better, or free yourself from disappointment, or maybe even as chastening, implying that there’s something awry if you can’t settle for what you have, which is probably better than you think it is.
In French Braid, Tyler envisions a compromise between escape and resignation. Mercy never explicitly leaves her husband Robin, but as soon as she feels free to do so, after their last child heads off to college, she sets herself up in what had been her painting studio, gradually moving her things there and sleeping over, first the occasional night, then more often, until it becomes her (unofficial) residence. It isn’t that she doesn’t love Robin—she continues to look in on him, even to look after him—but she wants something for herself, a degree of freedom or space or clarity, a kind of life that she can’t have living with him. Neither of them ever acknowledges that they are actually, in practice, separated. Nobody else in their family ever talks openly about it either. When her granddaughter Kendall says that she would like to live as Mercy does, doing what she wants when she wants to, Mercy responds that “it does have its pleasures,” adding,
“Sometimes people live first one life and then another life . . . First a family life and then later a whole other kind of life. That’s what I’m doing.”
For Mercy, this “semi-detached” marriage is a way to have that other life without dealing Robin too hard a blow. It’s not such a good deal for Robin, perhaps, but by the time it dawns on him that Mercy does not ever intend to settle back into a conventional married life with him, their new pattern is so well established that it’s not much of a shock. (And after all, must married couples live together forever, no matter what? I’m reading the newly collected letters of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, and one of the central issues of Brittain’s life is her “semi-detached” marriage, the result of many factors including her determination not to be the one who put family first and career second. Robert B. Parker and his wife were married for decades but lived for many of them in separate apartments under the same roof, preserving the things they valued about marriage while freeing themselves from the parts of it that chafed.) If Delia’s attempt to “begin again from scratch” is misguided because it artificially separates her past and her future, maybe Mercy’s studio apartment—a literal room of her own—works better because it meets her needs but remains anchored in her reality.